Syria's President Fails To Lift Emergency Law

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gave a nationally televised speech Wednesday to address the anti-government protests that erupted there more than a week ago. Instead of lifting the emergency law as some had predicted, Assad blamed the unrest on a plot outside the country. Melissa Block speaks with David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University, about his reaction to the address. Lesch is the author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

There was great expectation that today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would lift the emergency law that's been a bulwark of the Baath Party's hold on power for 48 years. But that did not happen.

Instead, Assad made a speech blaming foreign conspirators for the unrest that's engulfed Syria over the last two weeks.

Dozens of protesters have been killed in a government crackdown. Assad said: We are for meeting the people's demands. We are not in favor of chaos and destruction. And he offered no concessions.

Well, count Professor David Lesch among those disappointed by Assad's words today. He's professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, and he interviewed President Assad for his book, "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria."

Professor Lesch, welcome to the program.

Professor DAVID LESCH (Middle East History, Trinity University; Author, "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria"): Pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: There was a lot of buildup for this speech. This is the first time that Syrians heard from their president since the protest began. And in the end, Assad offered really nothing to them. Were you surprised by that?

Prof. LESCH: I am surprised. I was hoping for much more than what he did. And the fact that he, you know, focused on conspirators and enemies of the state is very tired. It's something that Mubarak said, Gadhafi said, Saleh said in Yemen. And, you know, the world is full of authoritarian leaders who are unemployed who had blamed mass uprisings on conspirators and foreign enemies.

BLOCK: Some of those conspirators that President Assad was talking about - he talked about powers trying to bring down Syria and enforce what he called an Israeli agenda. He also blamed satellite channels. Is that familiar language from what you know of Bashar al-Assad, that he would blame those forces, those people?

Prof. LESCH: Yeah, it's familiar language, not only of Bashar al-Assad, but Syrians in general. Syrians are given to conspiracy theory. So they're primed to believe the president. There has been just enough conspiracies inside Syria by foreign powers over the decades to make it believable.

BLOCK: President Assad also pretty much washed his own hands of any responsibility for the dozens of protesters who've been killed. He said, security forces were given clear orders not to injure any Syrians. At the same time, he said, you know, this is Syrian blood. These are our brothers. Is that even plausible that that crackdown could have been undertaken without his okay?

Prof. LESCH: It's not only plausible, it's probably likely. I have experienced firsthand the disconnect between the government, between the president himself and the mukhabarat, the secret police or the security services. They see themselves as the protectors of the state, protectors of their own interest and protectors of the president. Oftentimes, they act convulsively in a way that the president doesn't even want.

BLOCK: We heard President Assad today repeat time and again, you know, I am a reformist. Again, giving no sign of that today and offering no concessions. In your interviews with him when you were writing your book, did you get the sense of him as a leader sort of tugged in two directions on that issue?

Prof. LESCH: I did. And not so much in himself, but in Syria. Syria is tugging him in two directions, the establishment and the established interests versus those that want reform. I think down deep, he wants reform, particularly economic reform. And he's done quite a bit to date in that regard in terms of private banks, in terms of establishing a stock exchange, educational reform, administrative reform. So he tended to focus on those things instead of political reform.

And when I brought up the idea of political reform, the response was, Syrians weren't ready for it. That, you know, democracy happens at a different pace and an evolutionary fashion based on the specific historical circumstances in a particular country, which is all very true. But sometimes, it can also be used as an excuse to forestall political reform.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Professor David Lesch of Trinity University in San Antonio. He's author of the book, "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria."

Professor Lesch, thanks very much.

Prof. LESCH: My pleasure.

BLOCK: This is NPR News.

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