Any illusions about 2013 opening in a spirit of peace and optimism were wilfully crushed by Bashar al Assad on Sunday when he pledged to drive the ‘Al-Qaeda terrorists’ out of Syria.
In one of the most self-serving, cynical and ultimately macabre speeches imaginable, the President of Syria chose to all but ignore the estimated 60,000 men, women and children who have died in his country since the start of peaceful democratic demonstrations against his rule at the beginning of 2011. There was no mention either of the United Nations report which cited the death toll also referencing human rights violations by Assad’s forces, including systematic torture and the use of cluster bombs against civilians.
Instead, Assad – who delivered his hour long address at the Damascus Opera House – concentrated his disingenuous oratory on outside forces creating trouble in Syria, attributing all of the ‘terrorist violence’ to foreigners supported by malevolent neighbours. Replacing compassion for the victims of his suppression with bland political jargon, Assad offered technical measures to end the civil war, including a ‘national charter,’ a referendum, constitutional reform, and even ‘an expanded government.’ There was also a particularly devious mention of ‘reconciliation,’ and hints at an amnesty for those ‘who have not betrayed Syria.’
If the start of the Arab Spring revolts in the early days of 2011 seems like a very long time ago, then it is even longer since Bashar al-Assad was in a position to reform his way out of trouble. That possibility ended when he started slaughtering his own people in a manner which ruthlessly deposed dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and even Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi never got close to. What Assad chose to ignore on Sunday is the fact that all opposition groups in his country – let alone members of the international community – see his exit as the only possible route to ending the violence. That is why he is using the traditional language of the threatened despot, evoking dark, alien forces as being responsible for the bloodshed, instead of his own misrule.
Assad’s speech was also studiously choreographed – almost in the style of the overblown, fantastical operas which used to regularly be held on the very same stage where he spoke. Melodramatic references to ‘gangs of criminals’ and the need to ‘rise up to defend the nation’ were spluttered out by the tall, ungainly figure before he was mobbed by an exuberant crowd of flunkies chanting ‘We will sacrifice our blood and soul for you Bashar’.
This was typical Assad, who last braved a fleeting appearance in November, telling Russian television that he would ‘live and die’ in Syria. He is desperate to maintain some kind of respectable public face, genuinely believing that he can hold on to power amid overwhelming evidence that almost everybody wants him to go.
William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, summed up the situation when he described the speech as ‘beyond hypocritical,’ saying the ‘deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are of (Assad’s) own making’ and that ‘empty promises of reform fool no one.’ The reaction to the speech was also encapsulated by the Syrian National Coalition who said ‘it was a waste of time.’
In fact, it was even worse than that. What Assad’s speech showed was that he has absolutely no intention whatsoever of compromising, and will continue to prosecute one of the most savage civil wars in Middle East history indefinitely. It did not go unnoticed that the district around the Damascus Opera House was ‘locked down’ by soldiers and police in the hours before Assad’s speech. The dictator’s affirmed enemies are no longer massing in ‘enemy’ cities like Aleppo, but flooding into the suburbs of Damascus itself.
Assad, of course, refuses to even discuss why millions of his own countrymen and women should have turned against him, and in many cases taken up arms against his rule. He will not acknowledge that the barbaric, repressive nature of his regime might be behind the desperate calls for democracy.
What Assad’s speech in fact signified was his determination to use his airforce’s control of the skies, and his well trained and relatively well equipped army to kill, maim, and imprison as many more adversaries as possible. Yes, Assad’s oratory sounded like something out of a dry, uninspiring theatre piece but what it ultimately promised was a 2013 which is likely to be even more horrific for Syria than 2012.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning Paris-born freelance journalist of Algerian descent who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs, and the Arab World. She writes regular columns for British, French and Middle Eastern press. Nabila is a winner of the Best Arab journalist in the West Award 2012 organized by the London-based Arabs Group network. She is an honoree of the Global Thinkers Forum Excellence in Innovation Award 2012 and is a Fellow on the pioneering U.N. Alliance of Civilizations program.She can be found on Twitter: @NabilaRamdani