Syrian protesters reject Assad's latest offers of reform

McClatchy NewspapersJune 20, 2011 

CAIRO — Fighting to save his family's 40-year reign over Syria, President Bashar Assad on Monday described some anti-regime protesters as "saboteurs" and "germs," but he pledged more reforms as the nationwide rebellion continued for a fourth bloody month.

Anti-government protesters in Syria and among more than 10,000 refugees in neighboring Turkey rejected Assad's latest promises as vague and disingenuous, however, saying he offered no concrete steps or timetable to allow citizens a greater voice in one of the Arab world's most repressive police states.

In Assad's televised speech, his third since large-scale protests began in mid-March, the embattled leader struck a slightly more conciliatory tone, acknowledging the rising death toll in his regime's crackdown. He announced a 100-member panel to draft reforms related to parliamentary election law and press freedoms.

Assad also suggested that he'd prosecute those responsible for the bloodshed and would support drafting a new constitution that could challenge his Baath Party's monopoly on political life. Opposition activists long have demanded rival political parties.

"We must isolate true reformers from saboteurs," Assad said, speaking from an auditorium at Damascus University, where an audience of supporters clapped and cheered.

Protesters weren't appeased, reiterating their demand that the fall of the Assad dynasty is the only acceptable resolution to the crisis, although there's no obvious successor in a country whose opposition has been intimidated and exiled for decades.

Assad touted the reform panel as including Syrians from "all walks of life," but analysts noted that the regime would handpick its members. Many of the most dedicated opposition leaders, who've said that they no longer wish to negotiate with the government because of the spiraling death toll, have gone into hiding to avoid arrest or worse.

"A speech of denial," summed up Dubai-based analyst Fares Braizat, speaking on the Al Jazeera English satellite channel. "He spoke like a monarch who's staying in power forever."

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney called on Assad to take "concrete action" on reforms and end violence against civilians. Referring to the speech, Carney said, "I'm not saying the words are meaningless but he needs to act upon them."

Thousands of Syrians took to the streets of Damascus and other major cities immediately after the address, according to a flurry of YouTube videos posted Monday. Aware that such videos are difficult to verify, protesters carried placards dated June 20 and told the camera they were protesting after Assad's speech Monday.

In one video, dozens of university students marched down a street shouting against the government. At least two clips showed shoes being hurled at television screens as Assad's speech was broadcast.

In the cities of Hama, Aleppo and Homs, protesters chanted, "Bashar, you liar!" and "Freedom!" and swore revenge for their "martyrs."

Human rights groups estimate that at least 1,000 people have been killed in the rebellion, and scores more wounded. Hundreds of others have been detained or have disappeared, activists say.

There was little confidence among the opposition that Assad would prosecute the killers in earnest; his own brother Maher Assad is widely thought to be directing the deadly campaign to crush the rebellion.

Assad, who's now 45, came to power a decade ago, succeeding his notorious father, Hafez Assad, through an uncontested referendum. He billed himself as a reformer at the time, but very few of his promises have come to fruition, and he now rules Syria with the help of a cloistered group of advisers who operate as if they're above the law.

The conflict has raised the troubling specter of sectarianism: Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, though his country is predominantly Sunni Muslim with sizable Christian and Druze populations. Already, tensions between Alawites and other sects have spilled into Lebanon and Turkey, with fears of reprisal killings on both sides.

In the refugee camps of southern Turkey, home to some 10,000 displaced Syrians, protests erupted after the speech. In interviews over the past week, Syrian refugees described a fierce campaign of military force and militia violence that left dozens dead, homes ransacked, farmlands torched and whole villages emptied in the verdant stretch along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Speaking from the Yayladagi camp, where more than 3,000 refugees are housed, Syrians said protesters still arrived with fresh wounds, suggesting that military operations continue despite Assad's reassurances of amnesty for returning families.

"How can we trust that he'll make any reforms while he's still killing people?" said a refugee who'd only use his first name, Mohamed, for fear of retaliation against relatives still in Syria.

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this article from Cairo.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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