Jan 7, 2013

The world still blinks every time that Bashar Al Assad speaks, as if it has not learnt anything from 21 months of violence.

In his speech yesterday – his ninth since the uprising began – the dictator offered a plan that would include a lengthy, complicated process of gradual change and “truth and reconciliation”. That would, in theory, lead to a new coalition government and a new constitution.

The speech was preceded by an aggressive two-week diplomatic campaign by the regime’s allies and the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. That renewed push for diplomacy followed 140 countries’ recognition of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, Nato Patriot missiles and military personnel that were dispatched to Turkey’s border, and pledges of increased support for the opposition.

The diplomatic overture by the regime is part of a Russian-backed plan that would keep Al Assad in power until presidential elections in the summer of 2014. And the diplomacy appears to have succeeded in slowing down aid to the rebels, with reports that arms supplies are drying up. But the speech yesterday should remind the world that this dictator has no place in a future Syria and that support for the rebels is the only way forward.

Russia probably pressured on Al Assad to announce a plan of reconciliation. But the speech sounded more vindictive, dismissive and exclusivist than even his previous bombast. For example, he said the plan was directed at only segments of the opposition, and that “those who reject the offer, I say to them: why would you reject an offer that was not meant for you in the first place?” In other points, he emphasised vengeance rather than reconciliation. He also blamed the rebels for the destruction of infrastructure and for cutting off electricity and communications.

“Syria accepts advice but never accepts orders,” he said. “All of what you heard in the past in terms of plans and initiatives were soap bubbles, just like the [Arab] Spring.”

It was clear that he tried to sound steadfast, but his voice betrayed him several times. And before his departure from the room, the crowds chanted “may God protect you” – a chant that is used when someone is threatened. The usual party line is “with our soul and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you”.

Why would the regime offer a plan now, when it has not made a single meaningful concession since the beginning of the uprising? The violence would never have reached such staggering levels had Al Assad offered reasonable reforms from the beginning. Any hope that he can engineer an end to the violence is an illusion, which will only prolong and worsen the crisis. If anything, the speech showed that the regime will not change its policies except under duress.

The aim seemed to be threefold: to create the impression that the rebels refuse political settlements; to add to the world’s reluctance about arming the rebels; and to question the legitimacy of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

The proposal of a new constitution is merely a red herring. Syrians did not rise up against the constitution, nor have they demanded constitutional change. People rose up against brutality, and the fact that the existing constitution was never honoured – the mukhabarat apparatus has dominated almost every aspect of Syrian life. The immediate cause of the uprising in Deraa was the mukhabarat, who arrested and tortured school boys for writing anti-regime graffiti and then humiliated their families.

Nor did Syrians rise up to be included in a coalition government. Any government that includes these same criminals will be no different.