Syria President Bashar Assad pledges iron fist against opponents

January 11, 2012
By Alexandra Zavis and Katie Paul, Los Angeles TimesIn a defiant national address, Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday blamed “foreign conspiracies” for a nearly 10-month uprising in Syria and vowed to “strike with an iron fist” against opponents he labeled terrorists.

“What has been decided in dark rooms is now revealed before the eyes of the people,” Assad said inDamascus, the Syrian capital.

It was a familiar refrain from a leader who critics say has refused to acknowledge the depth of public anger over four decades of Assad family rule.

Since the start of major antigovernment protests in March, Syrian authorities have responded with a combination of military force and offers of incremental reform that have failed to win over opposition activists who now say they will be satisfied with nothing short of Assad’s ouster.

Assad’s address, his first since June, drew a scathing response from Burhan Ghalioun, who heads the country’s most prominent opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council.

“The regime has not learned anything from 10 months of crisis or from the blood it has spilled,” Ghalioun told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey. The only response, he said, was to continue protesting and to ask the Arab League to refer Syria to the United Nations Security Council.

Analysts called it Assad’s most confident and defiant speech yet.

“In the West, we all tend to think the Assad regime’s days are numbered,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “The Assad regime seems to believe not only ‘we have survived’ but ‘we have gained the upper hand.'”

Despite a growing list of international sanctions, Syria retains key support from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Russia. Defections from the security forces have for the most part been limited to lower-level conscripts. And the country’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not seen the level of opposition that other major centers have.

In a nearly two-hour address, punctuated by applause from the audience at the University of Damascus, Assad insisted that there was no revolution in Syria and said he would not step down.

“I am holding this position by the will of the people, and when I leave this position it will be by the will of the people,” he said. “I am not someone who can abandon responsibility.”

Assad held out the possibility of a more inclusive government, saying constitutional changes proposed by a handpicked committee could be put to a national referendum as soon as March and would be followed by a multiparty parliamentary election.

But he said security must be the top priority. “There can be no letup against terrorism; it must be hit with an iron fist,” he said.

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