Protesters have taken to the streets across Syria to denounce a speech by President Bashar al-Assad, saying his address did not meet popular demands for sweeping political reform.
In a 70-minute televised speech, Assad acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but said “saboteurs” were exploiting the situation.
Although he called for “national dialogue,” he said, “There is no political solution with those who carry arms and kill.”
Rallies against Assad were held in major cities including Homs, Hama, Latakia and in Damascus suburbs.
In the Sleibeh and Raml al-Filistini districts of the coastal city of Latakia, protesters chanted “liar, liar”.
“People were still hoping he would say something meaningful that would result in tanks and troops leaving the streets. They were disappointed and started going out as soon as Assad finished talking,” one activist in the city said.
“No to dialogue with murderers,” protesters chanted in the Damascus suburb of Irbin.
Demonstrations also took place in the eastern city of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, the southern city of Deraa and other towns in the Hauran Plain, cradle of the uprising, now in its fourth month.
Activists said dozens of students were arrested in a protest at the campus of Aleppo University.
Meanwhile, state television aired footage from a pro-Assad rally at the Aleppo citadel. Along with the Syrian flag, demonstrators held the Russian flag.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, told the Financial Times on Thursday that his country would use its veto to block any United Nations Security Council resolution that could justify military intervention in Syria.
Barack Obama, the US president, spoke with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, on Monday about the situation in Syria, the White House said.
“The leaders agreed that the Syrian government must end the use of violence now and promptly enact meaningful reforms that respect the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people,” the White House said in a statement.
|Official media distributed pictures of pro-Assad
rallies after the speech [Reuters/SANA]
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, urged Assad to take “concrete action” on his promise of political reforms and called on him to halt a violent crackdown on civilians.
“I’m not saying the words are meaningless but he needs to act upon them,” Carney told reporters when asked about Assad’s pledge of a national dialogue to address a wave of protests against his rule.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Assad’s address was “not enough” and urged the president to implement a multi-party system in Syria.
The European Union foreign policy chief described Assad’s speech as “disappointing”.
“President Assad has to launch a credible, genuine and inclusive dialogue, and it’s up to the people of Syria to judge the willingness to reform,” Catherine Ashton told a news conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
“But I have to say at first glance, the speech today was disappointing.”
The EU was preparing to expand its sanctions on Syria in response to worsening violence against opponents of the government, according to a statement agreed by EU foreign ministers.
“President Bashar actually believes that he’s making serious concessions,” David Lesch, a professor of Middle Eastern History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, told Al Jazeera.
“There’s a disconnect between Washington and the rest of the international community and the Syrian regime, in terms of the necessary concessions to make in order to initiate a real national dialogue toward real reform.
In his speech, Assad announced that a national dialogue would start soon and that he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.
Bashar al-Assad’s adviser Bouthaina Shaaban speaks to Al Jazeera
He said he expected a package of reforms by September or the end of the year at the latest.
Bouthaina Shaaban, a minister in Assad’s government and an adviser to the president, said his reform agenda is based on “what the Syrian people want”.
“Martial law is lifted, there’s committees for new political parties, for new electoral laws, for new media laws.”
“For the last two months he’s met with thousands of people from all over the country, from all walks of life, from all religions, and hence, the president’s vision is based on what the Syrian people want and what the Syrian people need”, she told Al Jazeera.
Syria’s opposition dismissed the speech, saying it lacked any clear sign of a transition to true democracy.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an activist network, said in a statement that the president had turned a “blind eye” to the “new reality” the uprising had created.
The LCC dismissed Assad’s call for dialogue as a way to gain more time.
“We have announced previously, we reject any dialogue in the light of the continued killings and intimidation and the siege of cities and arbitrary arrests. We believe there will be no benefit of any dialogue if it is not intended to turn the current page of the regime, peacefully.”
“The true response to that speech came by the people right after the speech when the demonstrations started in various cities and provinces.”
Theodore Kattouf, a former US ambassador to Syria, said the speech was “short on specifics that would give anybody confidence that this is a real effort to radically reform a regime that’s been in power for 40 years”.
“I think, if anything, it will anger the Syrian people and bring more protesters onto the streets than we’ve seen today,” he told Al Jazeera.
Demonstrations erupted as Syrians sheltering in refugee camps in Turkey reacted furiously to the speech.
“Bashar al-Assad, we don’t want you and your party,” they chanted, some hurling shoes or slippers at the television in a typical Arab gesture of contempt.
More than 10,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey, fleeing violence in northwestern Syria.
In his speech, Assad urged the refugees to return home, saying there would be no retaliation against them.