By blaming ongoing protests on a "conspiracy" and admitting no political wrongdoing in his speech to the nation, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad missed a key opportunity, says DW's Rainer Sollich.
The speech was his big chance. Bashar al-Assad could have used it to introduce the needed democratic reform in Syria that his protesters have been calling for, while at the same time positioning himself as a visionary national leader. But he didn't even try.
Instead, the Syrian president reached into a bag of cheap propaganda tricks: Writing off the protests as the result of a conspiracy bent on dividing Syria. Blaming the foreign media for intentionally spreading misinformation. Giving the speech in front of a cheering parliament which everyone knows was not freely elected. He didn't even seem embarrassed by the clearly orchestrated speeches of praise heaped on him by the parliamentarians. The whole eerie scene was reminiscent of states like North Korea.
And yet, there is a drastic need for reform in Syria. The country has no real freedom of speech, no free press, and no legal opposition. Corruption is everywhere, secret police control the populace, and opponents of the regime are condemned and locked up. Moreover, they increasingly fear for their lives: At least 60 people are said to have been killed in the past two weeks of protests, although no one knows the true number.
President al-Assad didn't even have the courage to propose a concrete date for rescinding the state of emergency - something he has been vaguely promising. Instead he held a speech that showed absolutely no future perspectives for his country and offered no hope whatsoever - yet it is likely to further provoke his opposition.
The fact that the entire Syrian cabinet stepped down the day before the speech was not actually any concession, since the cabinet had very limited political power. But no one should underestimate the support that this president has in certain parts of his own population.
Bashar al-Assad is not nearly as unpopular as Egypt's ex-ruler, Hosni Mubarak. He has garnered a lot of respect, especially for his uncompromising attitude toward the US and Israel. But the calls for freedom and democracy in Syria will not be entirely suppressed, and the regime's way of dealing with it is a known quantity. This means, unfortunately, that further violent escalations are all too likely.
Rainer Sollich is the head of DW's Africa and Middle East program (jen)
Editor: Rob Mudge