The speech that changed Syria

Mike Giglio reports: On March 30, 2011, around 3 p.m. in Damascus, Lawand Kiki took a seat in front of the TV in a friend’s living room and waited for Syria’s president to appear on the screen.

Bashar al-Assad had been silent for more than a week.

Dictatorships had just been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia, and NATO jets were pounding Libya. Now unrest had reared its head in Syria. Earlier that month, protests erupted the small city of Daraa, south of Damascus, after police arrested and tortured some kids who’d been caught spray-painting anti-Assad graffiti. Crackdowns on the protests there inspired more around the country. Security forces had reportedly killed dozens of protesters by the time Assad decided to speak.

Syrians across the country tuned in. Many of them saw Assad as their savior. Kiki thought the speech would be historic: Assad would show himself as the reformer he’d long claimed to be, apologizing for the bloodshed and calming the anxious nation’s nerves. This is a crisis, and he’s gonna fix it, he thought. Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be fine.

Kiki was far from the hardened sectarian stereotype that defines Assad’s supporters today. He spent half his life in the United States, moving there at 14 when his father, a Kurdish dissident, won asylum. For the next 15 years he lived with his family in Fairview, N.J., developing a thick Jersey accent and a deep love for the U.S. But he overstayed his visa and was deported back to Syria in 2007.

The return was a shock for a guy who did a mean DeNiro impression and recited lines from Analyze This. He was arrested upon landing at the airport, by authorities suspicious of his time in the U.S. They whipped him with electric cables and beat him until his teeth cracked. Then they set him free, and he settled in Damascus, where he was jarred by the poverty and isolation — the overcrowded homes, the fact that most people couldn’t afford to own a car or even to buy meat. He quickly learned not to talk politics in a country blanketed by Soviet-style secret police. “The walls have ears,” said his family and friends.

Over time, he fell in love with the ancient city, finding peace in things like the jasmine flowers that grew from its old stone walls. He sometimes thought he felt the city breathing. In Assad — the young, Western-educated president who dined with John Kerry and mingled with people in the street — Kiki saw hope, believing the president would roll back the repressive regime handed down by his father, Hafez. Things like corruption and police abuse were the mistakes of individual people, not reflections on Assad. It has nothing to do with the president himself, Kiki would think.

Kiki also feared the demons that a push to oust Assad might unearth, as the bloody histories of Syria’s neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq cast a long shadow over its own sectarian balancing act. I don’t want this mess in my country, he thought as Assad prepared to take the stage.

In the U.S., Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, had told reporters three days earlier that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle saw Assad as “a reformer.” His biographer, the author and historian David W. Lesch, said the jury was still out: “[I]t’s not yet clear what sort of leader Mr. Assad is going to be,” Lesch wrote in an op-ed titled “The Syrian President I Know” published in the New York Times the day before the speech. “Mr. Assad’s background suggests he could go either way.”

Frederic C. Hof, then a senior U.S. official tasked with negotiating peace between Syria and Israel, didn’t buy into Assad’s reformist image, but thought: “This is Bashar’s opportunity. He’s been talking about reform and a new Syria for nearly 11 years.”

CNN and the BBC broadcast the speech live.

As Assad approached the podium, the regime-sanctioned parliament broke into thundering applause.

“I speak to you at this exceptional moment when events and developments pose a great test to our unity,” he said. “It is a test which is repeated every now and then because of the continued conspiracy against this country.”

Assad said he was responsible for all Syrians but didn’t apologize for the violence. He spoke vaguely of reform but mentioned nothing specific. And he warned of conspiracy, again and again. “I am sure you all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and faraway countries, with some inside the country,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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