Syria’s Assad warns of ‘conspiracy’

Syrian president fails to lift emergency laws in his first speech since security forces curbed anti-government protests.

Damascus - SYRIA
Assad spoke day after thousands of Syrians joined government rallies across country in mass outpouring of support

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, blamed “conspirators” for two weeks of anti-government protests that have rocked the nation but failed to lift emergency rule or offer other concessions.

In his first address to the nation since the start of a violent crackdown on protests demanding greater freedoms that erupted earlier this month, 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.

Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry travelled to Daraa to gauge reaction to President Assad’s speech

During his speech, that lasted almost one hour, Assad took aim at social networking websites and pan-Arabic satellite television news channels but made no mention of any plans to lift the state of emergency.

Assad said he supported reform but offered no new commitment to change Syria’s rigid, one-party political system.

“Staying without reforms is destructive to the country,” Assad said, without elaborating on a pledge by his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban last week that the president would look into lifting the emergency law.

Assad echoed that statement on Wednesday.

“The emergency law and political parties law have been under study for a year. There are more, unannounced reforms … but giving a timeframe is a logistic matter,” the president said.

He said “conspirators” have tried to reinforce sectarianism to incite hatred and “bring down Syria”.

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.”

Witnesses from the coastal city of Latakia, where 12 people were killed last week during protests, told Al Jazeera clashes broke out between government troops and protesters within hours of Assad’s speech in Damascus.

Deadly unrest

Assad’s rule has been rocked by a wave of demonstrations in defiance of the law over the past two weeks, with protesters emboldened by uprisings in the Arab world.

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.

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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.

The new cabinet, which is expected to be announced by the end of the week, will face the task of implementing the reforms.

The wave of protests, which began on March 15 in Damascus, were quickly contained by security forces, before taking root in the southern tribal region of Daraa and the city of Latakia in the north.

More than 60 people have died since March 18 as security forces cracked down on protesters, Human Rights Watch has said.

‘Pushed into chaos’

Daraa has sustained the most casualties, with activists estimating at least 100 people killed on Wednesday last week in clashes with security forces.

Syrian rights activists have accused security forces of killing 130 people in the crackdown, while Amnesty International says upward of 55 people have been killed. Officials put the toll at 30 killed.

Assad offered no concessions to ease the grip on public life exercised by his authoritarian regime [AFP]

Tuesday’s announcement about the cabinet came as tens of thousands of Syrians joined government-organised rallies across the country in a mass outpouring 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.

Authorities have accused fundamentalists and “armed gangs” of aiming to incite unrest in the country, particularly Daraa and Latakia, which emerged as the focal points of dissent.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies