Assad Speaks to Syrian People and Turkey

The Syrian president’s address last week was also an attempt to rehash ties with his Turkish neighbor.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010 (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)

Syria is not the safest place to travel for anyone interested in taking a relaxing vacation this summer. Despite a dedicated stampede against anti-regime demonstrations across the country, the Syrian government is still not having much success in containing the protest fever. Syrians long accustomed to looking over their shoulders have now broken through the blanket of fear that the government has relied upon to survive over the past forty years. The situation is getting quite testy in Syria’s periphery, particularly near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, which were quiet until a few weeks ago. Over 10,000 Syrian refugees have fled across the border to makeshift camps in Turkey, dragging the Turkish government into Syria’s internal conflict.

Recognizing that time may not be on his side, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the Syrian people at Damascus University in an attempt to mollify the anger and concerns of millions of his fellow citizens. Before the speech, Assad was hiding from view by remaining silent, even as his military and intelligence agents were killing innocents and razing entire villages. Assad, normally in Syria’s newspapers every single day, was nowhere to be seen in the press. Rumors even surfaced that the Syrian leader was refusing to answer telephone calls from the United Nations Secretary General, which would help explain why the international community is having such a tough time trying to convince him to stop the bloodshed.

But on Monday, June 20, Assad broke his silence, stepped in front of the television cameras and spoke to the Syrian public for close to an hour.

The Syrian people and Syrian society, the president said, have been strong in the past and should be strong in the future, so long as the nation finds a way to escape this dark episode in Syrian history. To the disappointment of Western capitals and Syrian demonstrators alike, Assad was quick to blame extremists, criminals and “germs” for the terrible atrocities that have occurred, and continue to occur, throughout his country over the last four months. He vowed not to cater to the “saboteurs” who would like nothing more than to divide Syria as a country and take advantage of its weakness. “There can be no development without stability,” Assad lamented, refusing again to admit that his own security forces are obstructing most of that “stability.”

Yet in a sign that Assad was clearly aware that his past speeches were not effective at mollifying the crowds, the president reinstated a new plan to address the legitimate grievances of the protesters. For the first time during the crisis, Assad distinguished between “people who have needs” and expect the government to “fulfill them” and the criminals and bandits who are exploiting the unrest for their own purposes. As has been the official line throughout the crisis, unknown extremists were once again blamed for the majority of the killing. Meanwhile, Syrian citizens are rolling their eyes at the reference.

While Assad’s speech was undoubtedly an appeal to the Syrian public for more time, the address may also have something to do with Turkey, a country that has begun to criticize the Syrian government’s conduct in the harshest terms.

Besides Iran, Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is Assad’s most valuable ally. Turkish-Syrian trade has increased substantially in the last decade from a low of $800 million in 2000 to a total of $5 billion today. For a regime that is struggling to pay salaries to its workers amid international sanctions and a cash strapped economy, this money could not be more vital. Travel restrictions between the two countries have been eliminated, and the Syrian and Turkish governments have signed fifty cooperation deals in just the last seven years. Erdoğan is also reportedly close to Assad on a personal level, with the two speaking on a near weekly basis.

That love affair, however, is ending almost as fast as it began. With thousands of Syrian refugees now on Turkish soil, and more set to arrive, the Turkish prime minister is growing visibly annoyed about Assad’s violent ways. Despite appeals for calm and reform, Erdoğan is left wondering whether his neighbor is well past the negotiation phase.

Although difficult to confirm, Assad’s latest speech may be just as important for his relations with Turkey as to his own people. The message to both — “I intend on reforming.” But with more than thousand people killed, more than 10,000 thrown in jail, and thousands more streaming out of the country in fear of a massacre, no responsible player in the international community is buying Assad’s promises anymore.

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