In his first public address to the Syrian people in six months, President Bashar al-Assad ended any and all speculation as to whether he would consider stepping down from his post to end the bloody civil war that has engulfed his country for almost two years.
A vast segment of northern Syria may now be in rebel hands and the capital city of Damascus a critical frontline in the battle; Assad was calm, composed and defiant in front of his supporters, pledging to fight for the safety of Syria against what he calls a campaign of terrorism armed and financed by foreign states.
The president’s speech, just under an hour long, took place in a packed opera house in the center of Damascus, the government’s power base and an area that the Syrian army has locked down with dozens of checkpoints. The regime had clearly been careful and methodical in its preparation. Hundreds of supporters stood up and applauded Assad as he walked to the podium. Dozens of loyalists rushed the stage to shake hands with him once the speech was over. The whole affair had a cult like atmosphere, with rhythmic chants of “God, Syria, Bashar is enough” erupting during the speech.
Apart from the stoic scenery and celebratory feeling in the air, the speech was notable for another reason: it exposed, albeit briefly, Assad’s state of mind.
Despite the loss of thousands of his own security forces, the destruction of entire cities and a drumbeat of rebel victories on the ground, the Syrian strongman portrayed himself as fighting for the future and prosperity of the country. The prospect for negotiations, which the international community and the United Nations Security Council view as the best option for a peaceful settlement of the conflict, were discarded by Assad as naive unless the process is based on the government’s terms.
Although Assad offered a political solution of his own — dialogue with opposition groups that he considers legitimate and peaceful, followed by a national unity government and a new constitution — he used many of the same disdainful phrases to describe the majority of the rebellion, calling them terrorists who do nothing but slay the innocent.
There was one particularly memorable quote from the speech that defines how Assad has approached the revolution since it erupted nearly two years ago:
We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word. This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war of defending the nation.
In other words, the Assad regime and its loyalists will not let up on the military campaign, regardless of how costly their actions are on civilians or how horrific their scorched earth policy has been to the name of humanitarian law.
In his twelve years of power, Bashar al-Assad has never experienced a challenge as surreal or as threatening as a revolution that has swept across entire Syria. His back is clearly up against the wall, with new territory falling to the rebels on a near weekly basis. Yet if one thing was made clear in Sunday’s speech, it’s that Assad is not going to capitulate to his opponents. The war is about far more than keeping Assad and the Ba’ath Party in power. For the president, it’s a battle for his reputation and his very survival.