Syrian President Bashar al-Assad outlined his peace plan for Syria on January 7 2013, in a televised address at the Opera House in the capital Damascus. In a defiant speech, Assad offered a national dialogue conference, referendum on a new constitution, and parliamentary elections, while firmly rejecting negotiations with the Western-backed opposition, or any discussion over his resignation.
Significance of the Speech: “State of War”
Assad’s speech came at the time of significant advances by rebels fighting the government troops, and intense diplomatic talks on a political solution backed by UN-Arab League joint representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
However, Assad did not present an image of an embattled leader fighting for survival, as he flatly rejected any substantial concessions that would open the way for a negotiated settlement. Neither did he seem to brush off the seriousness of the situation. Syria was “in a state of war in the full sense of the word”, charged Assad, facing an external aggression by extremist Islamists “following the ideology of al-Qaeda”, backed by the West and Syria’s regional enemies.
This was, above all, an address to the regime’s supporters. Assad called for “total national mobilization”, in which every citizen must contribute his part in the battle for the homeland (state news agency has the full text in English).
No Negotiations With the Rebels
Assad’s offer of political dialogue was qualified with a firm rejection of the very groups he would have to pacify to stop the violence: the armed rebels and the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition alliance. Assad mocked the “fake revolution”, denouncing the opposition as the “puppets of the West” and a “gang of criminals”.
So in practice the olive branch would only be extended to the loyal opposition that renounces the armed struggle, effectively recognizes the legitimacy of Assad’s leadership, and commits to a gradual transition process under the regime’s terms.
Transition Under Assad’s Leadership
To those opposition groups willing to accept these terms, Assad offered the following:
- Cessation of violence: Syrian army will stop military operations only when foreign governments end their support for the armed opposition, and when rebels cease hostilities against the state.
- New constitution: A comprehensive national conference attended by all political groups will draft a new constitution and present it to a popular referendum. Once approved, the constitution will be implemented by the current government, expanded with other political figures. A general amnesty would be declared under a process of national reconciliation.
- Parliamentary elections: This will pave the way for fresh parliamentary elections, and the formation of a new government.
There was nothing new in this proposal. Fresh elections tightly controlled by the regime were already carried out in 2011 and it’s difficult to see what would be different this time around – with no reform to Syria’s police state, and Assad’s undiminished control over the army and the intelligence apparatus. Crucially, there was no mention of Assad’s mandate, which expires in 2014.
Reaction to the Speech
The Syrian National Coalition (NC) predictably dismissed the speech, calling it a “pre-emptive strike” against Arab and international diplomatic solutions. NC member Louay Safi told Al Jazeera channel Assad’s peace initiative was “empty rhetoric”, while another opposition leader, George Sabra of the Syrian National Council, called the speech a “declaration of war” and vowed to continue with the resistance.
While Syria’s key regional ally Iran backed the proposal, Assad’s international foes all rejected the speech as meaningless and reiterated calls for his immediate resignation. US State Department said Assad was “detached from reality”, while UK Foreign Secretary William Hague called the initiative as “beyond hypocritical”.
The stage was set for the continuation of Syria’s civil war, with zero chances for a compromise between the two sides.Go to Current Situation in the Middle East / Syria / Syrian Civil War