In a speech at the Damascus opera house yesterday, President Bashir Assad of Syria appeared to close the door on any brokered diplomatic solution which would allow an early end to Syria’s civil war. In his hour long speech, he declared that he would not negotiate with the “terrorists” of the armed Syrian opposition but might negotiate with “their masters” – namely the West – but only if the rebels laid down their weapons first. He made no mention of the toll his own forces have exacted on the Syrian population and vowed to stay by the side of his loyalist supporters, which is being seen as a clear signal he is not looking for a safe exit plan. “I will go one day” Assad told his audience, but it was clear he believed that day was far off and would not be prepared to step down as a first move towards political reconcilliation as the opposition and Western nations have demanded. Given all this, the rest of Assad’s speech – which set out a post-violence plan for national reconcilliation, a referendum on a new constitution and a unity government but with Assad himself still in charge – is a non-starter. Opposition groups, Western and Arabic nations were swift to condemn the speech.
George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National Coalition, told Reuters the peace plan Assad put at the heart of his speech did “not even deserve to be called an initiative”:
“We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people,” he said.
“The appropriate response is to continue to resist this unacceptable regime and for the Free Syrian Army to continue its work in liberating Syria until every inch of land is free.”
Which leaves Syria looking forward to at least another year of civil war. The rebels have made inroads on Assad’s power, but Assad still controls the coast, the populous southeast and lilly-pad bases throughout the country from which to launch airstrikes and counter-attacks. The UN-Arab League envoy to Damascus, Lakhdar Brahimi, believes the country can devolve into a Somalia-like situation, “which means warlords, and the Syrian people will be persecuted by those who control their fate”. He’s talking about the rebels as much as Assad.