Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has blamed “conspirators” for two weeks of anti-government protests that have rocked the nation.
In his first address to the nation since the start of a violent crackdown on the protests, Assad said Syria was going through a “test of unity”.
“I belong to the Syrian people, and whoever belongs to the Syrian people will always keep his head high,” he said in the televised address before members of parliament in the capital, Damascus, on Wednesday.
“I know that the Syrian people have been awaiting this speech since last week, but I was waiting to get the full picture… to avoid giving an emotional address that would put the people at ease but have no real effect, at a time when our enemies are targeting Syria,” he said.
Assad entered parliament to a mass of cheering crowds outside the building. Once inside, legislators chanted “God, Syria and Bashar only!” and “our souls, our blood we sacrifice for you Bashar.”
He said “conspirators” have tried to reinforce sectarianism to incite hatred and “bring down Syria”.
‘Most important speech’
Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry, reporting from Damascus said the address is “without a doubt the most important speech of [Assad’s] career”.
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Assad was expected to use the address to discuss a string of reforms announced last week, amid a wave of dissent and protests demanding more freedoms. But he failed to elaborate on any such reforms.
The speech came a day after the country’s cabinet resigned.
Naji al-Otari, the resigning premier, has been chosen by Assad as caretaker prime minister. Otari has been prime minister since 2003.
The government has little power in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.
Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963 and Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
The 32-member cabinet will continue running the country’s affairs until the formation of a new government.
A new cabinet is to be formed in 24 hours, sources have told Al Jazeera.
More than 60 people have died since March 18 as security forces cracked down on protesters, Human Rights Watch has said.
‘Pushed into chaos’
Tuesday’s announcement about the cabinet came as thousands of supporters of Assad poured into central Damascus in a show of support for their leader.
On Tuesday, all roads leading to Sabeh Bahrat (“Seven Seas”) square in the capital were cut off by police armed with batons, as the crowd raised Syrian flags and pictures of Assad.
“The people want Bashar al-Assad,” they chanted in unison.
“Bashar al-Assad is the spine of Syria. Without him, our country will be pushed into chaos,” said a man who identified himself as Abu Khodr.
Last week, Bouthaina Shaaban, the senior adviser to the president, announced a number of reforms that would take place shortly.
“One of the key things she said was there are no red lines. Everything is up for negotiations to the president of Syria,” Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin said.
“The parliament has been in meetings ever since [the announcement] dealing with some of those reforms, at times asking the president’s office to clarify exactly what these reforms will be.
She emphasised: “the people are asking for reforms, not necessarily for the president to step down”.
State of emergency
Syrian authorities have also pledged to lift the state of emergency in force for almost 50 years since the Baath Party took power.
“We know the emergency law will be lifted, that is confirmed … the question is when will that happen,” our correspondent said.
Lawyers say the emergency law has been used by authorities to ban protests, justify arbitrary arrests and closed courts and give free rein to the secret police.
Last week, the state also announced other reforms, including the release of detainees and plans to form new laws on the media and licensing political parties.
Protests have grown increasingly violent across the country, with scores being killed in the recent unrest.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in Syria, but it now faces the wave of Arab revolutionary sentiment which has toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Assad has been criticised by the West and neighbouring Turkey for using violence against peaceful protesters.