Assad gives mixed signals in speech

Anthony Shadid reports:

In his first address in two months, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria promised on Monday not to bow to pressure from what he called “saboteurs,” but offered a national dialogue that he said could bring change to a country where the ruling party and a single family have monopolized power for more than four decades.

For days, the speech had been anticipated as a crucial look into the leadership’s willingness to reform in the face of a three-month uprising and mounting pressure from Turkey, the United States and the European Union. In rhetoric at least, Mr. Assad offered a path for change, even if the speech lacked specifics and delivered somewhat vague deadlines.

But the sincerity of Mr. Assad’s leadership in surrendering real power remained a key question, and some opposition figures insisted that while some of his proposals had merit, the speech itself fell short of an ambitious program for far-reaching change in Syria.

“The speech was built on promises, and the street doesn’t trust the government to accept these promises,” said Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure in Damascus, the capital.

Shortly after the address, activists reported protests erupting around Syria, including in the suburbs of Damascus.

Mr. Assad’s speech was different in tone from his first address after the uprising erupted in mid-March, when he called the demonstrations a conspiracy fomented by foreign enemies. He deployed some of the same language in Monday’s address — describing some of the trouble in Syria as “germs” that had infected the body politic — but acknowledged the depth of the gravest challenge to his 11 years in power.

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