Faced with growing pressure at home and abroad to end his crackdown on opposition protestors, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad struck a more conciliatory and compromising tone in an address to the nation.
In his third such speech since unrest broke out in the middle of March, Al-Assad conceded that the nation suffered serious problems that exposed it to protests. He said the government was ready to listen to the Syrian "street" and proposed a formal national dialogue.
"We in a position of responsibility have to listen to them," Al-Assad said in remarks broadcast live from Damascus University. "The patriotic elements have expressed their demands. They aren't connected with any external force. They want to participate. They want justice. They don't want to be marginalized."
The president's speech may have been directed at leaders overseas as much as at Syrians. European foreign ministers were due to meet on Monday to discuss Syria, as pressure grows for foreign powers to act. Syrian security forces have killed some 1,300 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Nearly 10,000 refugees have fled to Turkey, provoking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara.
While the plan was short on details, Al-Assad offered to begin a formal national dialogue that would lead to the creation of political parties alongside his Baath Party, which now has a monopoly on political life. It would prepare proposals for a freer press and possibly a new constitution for the country. He promised parliamentary elections in August and a reform package by September.
Al-Assad also addressed the country's economy, which has been paralyzed by strikes and protests. But he offered no proposals for economic reform, except for national dialogue on the matter.
"The most dangerous thing we face in the next stage is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy and a large part of the problem is psychological," Al-Assad said. "We cannot allow depression and fear to defeat us."
While the Syrian leader struck a more muted tone than in his previous addresses, analysts and opposition leaders said it didn't go nearly far enough.
"I don't see this speech as anything new or significant. It was a deeply disappointing speech. This isn't the man to conduct any significant dialogue," Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, told The Media Line.
Assad did acknowledge the grievances of ordinary Syrians, but he framed them as part of a conspiracy and blamed the protestors for stunting Syria's economic development. "It would have been a real miss if he didn't acknowledge any of the people's grievances," Sheikh said.
Shortly after the 75-minute address was over, protesters took to the streets of Damascus' suburbs and several cities, activists told Reuters news agency. "No to dialogue with murderers," 300 protesters chanted in the suburb of Irbin, a witness told Reuters by telephone.
"A national dialogue cannot happen when one side refuses to talk about the REAL issues and REAL situation," said a Syrian activist based in Beirut who blogs under the name Malath Aumran. "We are on the 98th day of protest today and the Bashar is still in denial."
Even as he admitted Syrians had real grievances, Al-Assad returned to the themes of foreign conspiracies and religious extremism that had been the focus of earlier addresses. Nevertheless, he termed the number of alleged terrorists "very few" albeit "very influential." He signaled that he was prepared to share blame with the opposition for the deaths and chaos over the last three months.
"Imposing peace and security doesn't justify killing people," Al-Assad said. "Legitimate demands don't create an excuse for people to create chaos."
"It's hard to interpret what this all means, because it was difficult to understand what Al-Assad was pitching. He just didn't sell it, and we don't know who is supposed to big part of this national dialogue," Issandr El-Amrani, an Egyptian journalist wrote on the highly regarded The Arabist blog site. "It still feels too half-hearted."
Syria can count on few influential friends, short of Iran and Turkey, the latter of whom had worked hard to improve ties with Syria over the last several years as part of its drive for improved diplomatic and commercial relations with the Middle East. But the strategy has run aground as Al-Assad has used violence to put down mass protests.
On Sunday, Ersat Hurmuzlu, an adviser to Turkish President Abdullah Gul, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television channel that Turkey would be watching closely what Al-Assad and warned him he had little time left to save his regime by implementing reforms.
"The demands in this field will be for a positive response to these issues within a short period that does not exceed a week," Hurmuzlu said.
Al-Assad, however, can still count on Russia and perhaps China to save him the embarrassment of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning his actions. While several European countries have submitted a draft resolution, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country has veto power in the council, indicated he wouldn't support it.
At home, however, there was little evidence that either the crackdown or appeals for stability and reform were working for the Syrian leader. On Sunday, opposition groups, which until now have operated as an assortment of independent and private efforts, announced they were setting up a "National Council" to coordinate the rebellion against the regime.
"We announce the creation of a National Council to lead the Syrian revolution, comprising all communities and representatives of national political forces inside and outside Syria," reporters near the Turkish-Syrian border were told by Jamil Saib, a spokesperson, on Sunday.
With reporting by David E. Miller
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