A dummy dressed in army fatigues and a mask depicting Syrian President Bashar… (AFP/Getty Images )
BEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad in a rare public appearance presented a plan for ending the country’s deadly civil war, but called his opponents “terrorists” and made clear he had no intention of leaving office, presenting himself as his people’s protector.
His dismissive attitude toward critics, and his dangling of limited concessions, offered little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough to end the 21-month civil war.
Assad cast himself as a leader saddened by his country’s strife and ready to find a way to end the conflict, but only on his terms. In his roughly hourlong speech at the national opera house in central Damascus, Assad sketched out a plan for peace.
In phase one, Assad called for a freeze to the fighting and an end to foreign aid to anti-government forces. If those conditions were met, Assad said he would order his forces to halt military operations and convene a national dialogue conference. Then, under a transitional government, the draft of a new constitution would be put to a national referendum. In a final phase, a new government would be formed and prisoners released.
Assad offered few details but presented himself as the one who would guide Syria back to stability.
Even as he presented his steps, Assad blamed the country’s troubles on terrorists. He also dismissed the idea he had any partner for peace. “We chose the political option from the beginning through its primary way, dialogue. We chose this to move Syria forward. But with whom are we talking? With extremists who only believe in the language of killing and terrorism?” Assad said.
Assad appealed to Syria’s civilians, who are appalled by the daily carnage and the influx of jihadist fighters, and mocked the idea the opposition had any legitimacy after months of bloodshed. Assad papered over his government’s hard-nosed tactics of air strikes, artillery shelling and the detention of opposition suspects as a matter of national defense.
"They call it a revolution when it has no relationship to a revolution. A revolution needs intellectuals and is based on thought. Where is the thinker?" Assad said. “The revolution is usually that of the people, not of those who are imported to revolt against the people. It is a revolution against the interests of the people, so by Allah, are these revolutionaries?”
Elegantly dressed supporters roared Assad’s name, chanting “God, Bashar and our Army,” pumping their fists at their president, who stood in front of a national flag, constructed from a photo montage of what appeared to be people killed in the conflict.
Assad’s speech came after weeks of shuttle diplomacy by Lakhdar Brahimi, the special envoy from the United Nations and Arab League, who has been laboring to negotiate a peaceful end to Syria’s internal war. Brahimi has proposed the creation of a transitional government, including the opposition and loyalists to Assad.
The international community, including Russia and the United States and regional players like Turkey, have endorsed the plan’s broad contours. But Russia and the West have clashed over Assad’s future. Washington has insisted Assad must go, while Moscow has not abandoned him, a stance also held by Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally. Both nations have said Assad should stay in power through national elections, with the option of running again.