Syria's President Blames Rebellion On 'Conspirators'

President Bashar al-Assad, seen in this photo released by the Syrian Arab News Agency, addressed Parliament for 50 minutes on Wednesday in Damascus. i i

President Bashar al-Assad, seen in this photo released by the Syrian Arab News Agency, addressed Parliament for 50 minutes on Wednesday in Damascus. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
President Bashar al-Assad, seen in this photo released by the Syrian Arab News Agency, addressed Parliament for 50 minutes on Wednesday in Damascus.

President Bashar al-Assad, seen in this photo released by the Syrian Arab News Agency, addressed Parliament for 50 minutes on Wednesday in Damascus.

AFP/Getty Images

Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed "conspirators" Wednesday for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his authoritarian rule, but he did not lift the country's despised emergency law or offer any concessions in his first speech since the protests began nearly two weeks ago.

Within hours of Assad's speech before Parliament, residents of the port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people — although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.

Assad said Syria is facing "a major conspiracy" to weaken the nation of 23 million people — a topic that loomed large in the 50-minute address, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson said.

The president made references to "outside forces," specifically naming Israel as stirring up sectarian divisions and tensions and confusing Syrians into holding protests, Nelson said.

"We don't seek battles," Assad said in the unusually short, televised address before legislators who cheered for him and shouted support from their seats. "But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it."

The speech was surprising not so much for what Assad said, but for what he left out.

His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, said last week that Syria had formed a committee to study a series of reforms and constitutional amendments, including lifting the state of emergency laws, in place since Assad's Baath party took power in 1963.

Assad had been widely expected to formally announce those changes. But the fact that he failed to mention any of them was a major disappointment for thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets since March 18, calling for reform. Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

Pro-government supporters held signs featuring portraits of Assad during a rally Tuesday in Damascus. i i

Pro-government supporters held signs featuring portraits of Assad during a rally Tuesday in Damascus. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-government supporters held signs featuring portraits of Assad during a rally Tuesday in Damascus.

Pro-government supporters held signs featuring portraits of Assad during a rally Tuesday in Damascus.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Assad said nothing about changing the law that allows the Baath party to rule. While he tacitly referred to the package of reforms announced last week, which includes some discussion of relaxing restrictions on other parties running in elections, Assad offered no immediate changes.

The lack of action isn't likely to calm the mood on the streets of cities across Syria.

Nelson said she spoke with the head of a Syrian human rights organization, who told her that protesters are tired of words, especially in light of killings and arrests of protesters in places such as Daraa and Latakia.

Within minutes of Assad's speech, social networking sites exploded with activists expressing major disappointment, some calling on Syrians to take to the streets immediately.

"The fact that he is blaming everything on conspirators means that he does not even acknowledge the root of the problem," said Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian lawyer and pro-reform activist. "I don't have an explanation for this speech, I am in a state of shock. ... There are already calls for a day of anger on Friday. This cannot sit well with the Syrian people."

Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by offering minor concessions and brutal crackdowns.

Assad fired his 32-member Cabinet on Tuesday in a move designed to pacify the anti-government protesters, but the overture was largely symbolic. Assad holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime, and there are no real opposition figures or alternatives to the current leadership.

Despite calls for revolution, Nelson said it's important to remember that Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.

"In the case of Syria, you don't really have that many protesters calling for Assad to step down," she said. "Even now that all these people have been shot dead or arrested and the like, they're not asking for his removal.

"So it may be awhile actually, and we may not see the groundswell that we've seen in some of these other countries despite the disappointment which they [protesters] are likely to feel because of the speech."

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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