Rallies held across the country as activists and world leaders say reforms pledged by president are not enough.
|Assad said those of a ‘radical and blasphemous intellect’ had tried to infiltrate Syria [EPA/SANA]|
For those who believe Syria has been overrun by an armed gang of criminals intent on spreading chaos and destruction, President Bashar al-Assad’s speech gave the first concrete details of the threat his nation is facing.
As many as 64,000 “outlaws” are leading the havoc in Syria, a number far greater, the president said, than even he had imagined at the beginning of the uprising against his family’s 41-year-dictatorship.
“Personally I was shocked. I thought there was a few thousand outlaws at the beginning of the crisis,” Assad, who is also head of all Syria’s armed forces, told an audience of mainly the Baath-run Students’ Union at Damascus University on Monday.
“Sixty-four thousand: The number, militarily speaking, means five military divisions, a complete army,” he said.
“If some of them wish to carry arms and perpetrate vandalism you can imagine the amount of havoc and destruction they could cause to the state and its institutions.”
One thousand of the outlaws have so far turned themselves in, but that still left 63,000, Assad said.
The president’s assertions told 40-year-old Bassam, a Baath Party member and engineer at a state-run company, all he needed to know.
“There are no real peaceful demonstrations, all of them are armed and should be punished,” he said.
“This is a revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood who are agents of America and the West. […] We should finish the radical Islamist groups in the country by the army, not dialogue.”
Bassam did, however, welcome the president’s pledge that a “consultative committee” would be discussing the “criteria and mechanisms” for a national dialogue in the coming days, with the dialogue itself to follow on for the next month or two.
“I think dialogue is the modern way to change the political system, not protesters in the street,” he said.
Alongside the “army” of criminals, Assad said the uprising in Syria has also been stirred by those of a “radical and blasphemous intellect, trying to infiltrate into Syria […] wreaking havoc in the name of religion”.
A civilian uprising had occurred in Maarrat an-Numan in Syria’s northwest, he said.
But it was by citizens seeking to protect the secret police and military from the kind of “heinous massacre” that Syrian state-run TV had reported against security officers in nearby Jisr al Shughur, Assad said.
“Conspiracies, like germs, reproduce everywhere, every moment, and they cannot be eradicated”
President Bashar al-Assad
A gang with advanced weapons and communication, riding in machine gun mounted 4x4s, had taken control of a strategic fuel depot in Maarrat an-Numan, he said.
“They tried to perpetrate another massacre in Maarrat an-Numan against a security unit, but civilians intervened and protected the security unit and some lost their lives and others were injured and others tortured,” he said
“I here salute those civilians and I will meet them very soon.”
If those lethal and sophisticated “armed gangs,” or the Islamist “takfiris” Assad later referred to, exist in Jisr al-Shughur, Abu Ammar, a 50-year-old farmer from the town, speaking to Al Jazeera by phone from close to the Turkish border where he has fled the military assault, has never seen them.
What he does know about are Syrian families killed by Assad’s own security forces.
“Assad called for the refugees to return home. But yesterday five families returned and were killed,” Abu Ammar said.
“If the president is honest in his call, he should pull out his tanks from Jisr al-Shughur.
“Today if anyone returns, the regime will kill him. […] We don’t believe the president and his promises. We are Syrian citizens and need our freedom. We are not terrorists or armed gangs.”
Syria’s image was being “smeared” internationally, Assad acknowledged, saying he knew of protesters who are “being paid money in order to film demonstrations and deal with media.
Some were are also paid to take part in demonstrations, he said.
Assad said Syria, as it always has been, was victim of “political conspiracies” which he likened to “germs”.
“Conspiracies, like germs, reproduce everywhere, every moment and they cannot be eradicated,” the president said.
“Yet we have to fortify our immunity. What we have seen through the media and political positions does not require a great deal of analysis to prove that there exists a conspiracy.”
For Rami, a 40-year-old member of the Local Co-ordination Committee (LCC) of Damascus, an opposition activist network, the speech confirmed that, as the president acknowledged, “there is no going back”.
“The Syrian regime is already dead but today President Assad’s speech announced it officially. He should announce his resignation,” Rami said.
“Why didn’t Assad start the dialogue before sending in tanks and helicopters? We weren’t surprised [by the speech] but we had said, ‘Maybe there is hope’. But now we are sure there is no hope from this regime.”
Raising the prospect of the crisis “or another one” lasting “for months or years” Assad said the greatest danger Syria now faced “is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy”.
For that he pinned a large portion of the blame on the uprising by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, which his father, former President Hafez al-Assad, also crushed militarily, killing between 20,000 and 30,000 people in Hama alone.
“All demands I listen to are rightful,” Assad said, acknowledging a certain segment of the protest movement wished “to participate in ruling and in justice, democracy”.
These desires, Assad said, “have been accumulating from the black era three decades ago of the Muslim Brotherhood”.
“Many generations are still paying the price: Unemployment, absence of security approval. We are being blamed for others’ faults,” he said.
Dr Imad Salamey, assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University and an expert on Syrian affairs, said Assad appeared to have grasped that Syria was facing serious problems, but not that those problems centred on the nature of his own presidency.
“He does not recognise that what is at stake is the absolute rule that is placed in the inner circle of the Assad family, its clan and the minority Alawites,” Salamey said.
“The regime can promise the best constitution in the world, but it is meaningless while the presidency remains a power not subject to term limits, with no accountability for himself or the family who rule Syria.”
With reporters in Syria