Viewers in Damascus watch Syrian President Bashar Assad speak about his… (Louai Beshara, AFP/Getty…)
BEIRUT — Ignoring mounting casualties and dwindling support, Syrian President Bashar Assad made clear to the world Sunday in his first public address in half a year that he has no intention of relinquishing power and that he, not anyone else, would dictate the end for Syria's 21-month-old civil war.
Assad unveiled his own peace plan, with cosmetic similarities to a settlement proposal championed by internationally sponsored peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but he declared he had no partner for negotiations in the Syrian opposition, whom he continued to brand as killers and terrorists.
Assad's dismissive attitude and strict terms for settlement offered little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough. It was a reminder of how intractable the conflict has become, with the U.N. estimating last week that more than 60,000 people had died.
Syria's cities are scenes of carnage, with rebels and government security forces battling across provinces and major cities from Aleppo to Idlib to Damascus, the capital. Opposition forces, which the West has not agreed to arm, have not proved strong enough to exhaust Assad, but neither has the autocratic 12-year leader been able to stamp them out.
Assad, like Brahimi, called for a new cease-fire, reconciliation talks and some form of transitional government. But Assad sketched out a far more complicated vision, beginning with a dialogue with the opposition leading to a new national charter, approved by a referendum. That would be followed by an expanded government, including those in the talks, that would oversee the drafting of a constitution. The charter would also be approved by a national referendum, and then national elections would be held.
And where Brahimi has pushed for meaningful compromise between the rebels and the president, Assad continued to insist that all groups play according to his terms.
He put the onus on rebels for an end to fighting, announcing that his troops would honor a cease-fire only after the opposition stopped fighting and foreign countries stopped funding them, in what amounted to a swipe at Persian Gulf countries, Turkey and Western nations. His plan also appeared to go against the grain of Brahimi's call for both sides to put down their arms. By Sunday evening, Brahimi's office had no comment on Assad's address.
The international community, including Russia, the United States and regional players like Turkey, has endorsed the Brahimi 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, at least at this point, abandoned him, a stance also held by Iran, Syria's closest regional ally.
In Washington, the State Department said Assad's initiative was “detached from reality ... and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression.”
Assad, speaking at Damascus' Opera House, dismissed the opposition as "slaves" to the West, playing on the image of a deeply dysfunctional group including exiles with little influence in Syria and Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-affiliated organization that has become the most feared and valued fighting force among the rebels and their umbrella Free Syrian Army.
The speech was similar to his past promises of reform that have proved jarringly empty. In February, in the midst of the civil conflict, Assad called for and won passage of a new constitution, which he said enshrined freedom of speech and multiparty elections. Months earlier, he had repealed a decades-old emergency law. But in real time, his security forces continued to detain opponents, shell neighborhoods and besiege cities.
On Sunday, standing somberly in front of a photo collage of people who reportedly have been killed in the civil warfare, Assad presented himself as a Syrian patriot, the only one capable of holding the nation together. Supporters packing the theater pumped their fists and yelled, "God, Bashar and our army." He basked in the adulation and at times waved to the crowd.
Even with the death toll soaring and the territory under his control plummeting, Assad appeared to cling to the hope that those Syrians who have grown weary of the unrelenting conflict and the rise of radical Islamists would turn to him.
"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 also papered over his government's hard-nosed tactics of airstrikes, artillery shelling and detention of opposition suspects, calling them a necessity for the nation's defense.