West dismisses Assad speech as Syrian opposition fights on
Syrian president makes first appearance since June, but his speech is greeted with derision
SYRIAN president Bashar al-Assad yesterday made his first public appearance since June and, during a carefully stage-managed performance in Damascus, destroyed any hopes of a political solution to the country's civil war as he denounced his opponents as "puppets" of the West and refused to step down.
In his speech at the Damascus Opera House, Assad presented what he described as a peace plan, but ruled out any talks with the armed Syrian opposition.
"He sounded much as he did at the start of the uprising 21 months ago, dictating which opposition groups were worthy and labelling the rest terrorists and traitors," reported the New York Times, which added that he glossed over the fact that 60,000 people have now died in the conflict and that large parts of the country are in rebel hands.
The Opera House was filled with Assad supporters for the occasion. "The Syrian leader oozed confidence and charm," said The Times. "He was frequently interrupted by adulation as the packed audience chanted his name, clenched their fists and implored God to preserve the Syrian Army."
However, the reaction in Syria was not replicated elsewhere.
"No sooner did the loud effusive chanting inside the Damascus Opera House subside, than an angry chorus rose from other capitals," wrote the BBC's Lyse Doucet. "A rare presidential speech in the midst of a dangerously deepening crisis only widened the divide."
The US State Department said Assad was "detached from reality", and described his address as "another attempt by the regime to cling to power".
British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that Assad's "empty promises of reform fool no-one" and the EU called on the Syrian president "to step aside and allow for a political transition".
Former ally Turkey dismissed Assad's comments as "repetitions" of his previous statements. Analysts agreed: "He doesn't seem to have moved an inch since summer 2011," Yezid Sayigh, of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told the New York Times.
The Syrian National Coalition made it clear it would continue the armed struggle. "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," it told Reuters.
And the future looks bleak for Syria. Speaking before Assad made his speech, UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi gave Al-Jazeera a grim assessment of the year ahead and warned that 100,000 people could die in the conflict this year.
"Either there will be a political solution that satisfies the Syrian people and realises their ambitions and legitimate rights, or Syria will turn into an inferno," he said.