Analysis: Defiant Assad tries to exploit Syrian nationalism to retain power

Syrian President Bashar al Assad at the Opera House in Damascus on Jan. 6, 2013. SOURCE: Syrian Arabic News Agency

In a rare televised speech last week, Syrian President Bashar al Assad spoke passionately about saving the Syrian “homeland”. But upon closer examination, it is clear that Assad is not interested in making peace or saving his “homeland”; his intention is to retain power and continue his family’s 40-year rule in Syria.

Read more: Transcript: President Bashar al-Assad’s speech on solving the Syrian conflict

Assad’s speech was full of nationalistic and xenophobic rhetorics designed to stoke fear and a perverted form of patriotism among Syrians to support his regime’s brutal crackdown of opponents.

The 22-month Syrian conflict has killed an estimated 40,000 people and forced more than half a million Syrians to seek refuge in neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

Addressing the packed Opera House in Damascus, Assad labelled the popular uprising against his regime as a “fake revolution” and branded the Syrian opposition as “terrorists” controlled by hostile foreign governments.

Assad went as far as to claim that his country’s civil war was the result of a conspiracy by Western nations to divert and dump as many terrorists as possible into Syria, conveniently ignoring his regime’s record of brutality against civilians.

“This terrorism was unyielding and pervasive and started to infiltrate Western societies. So, the events in the Arab world, especially in Syria, presented the Western powers with an opportunity to transfer as many terrorists as possible to Syria to turn it into the land of Jihad, hence dispensing with two troublesome rivals at the same time through getting rid of the terrorists and weakening Syria which is a nuisance for the West,” said Assad.

He beseeched the Syrian people to save “the homeland from a campaign unprecedented in the history of the region, targeting it”.

In his remarks, Assad positioned his continued rule as the “Syrian vision” and in the best interest of Syria and equated the opposition as “undermining” Syria and “sell[ing] the homeland to strangers.”

The peace plan laid out by Assad clearly underscores his intention to hold on to power.

Despite promising constitutional reforms and new parliamentary elections, Assad pointedly stated that “we may put the word ‘if’ as far as everything related to the constitution and laws is concerned” unless the proposed reforms are approved by his regime.

Assad also rejected the Geneva Communique – the United Nation’s 12-point peace plan calling for a “Syrian-led” transition to a peaceful, inclusive, democratic government.

“We don’t want someone to come to Syria and tell us what to do in a political process. A country that is thousands of years old knows how to manage its affairs,” said Assad. “Any initiative proposed by any party, figure or country must be based on the Syrian vision; meaning that no initiative can replace what we view as a solution to the crisis in Syria.”

The only foreign “assistance” acceptable to Assad is the cessation of funding and support to the Syrian opposition.

Assad’s peace plan was rejected by the Syrian opposition coalition.

The U.S. State Department described Assad’s peace plan as being “detached from reality.”

“Bashar al-Assad’s speech…is yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the efforts of the Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people.”

Overview of Assad’s Peace Plan:
1. Foreign countries to stop funding and supporting the Syrian opposition.
2. Syrian opposition forces to unilaterally cease fire before the Syrian army will suspend military operations. However, the Syrian military “preserves the right to respond in case the homeland, citizens, and public and private facilities came under attack.”
3. Secure Syria’s border to prevent the flow of refugees and fighters and maintain cease fire.
4. If the cease fire is upheld, then the Assad regime promised to reach out to Syrians and “pave the way for holding a national dialogue conference” to determine the political future of Syria.
5. The political reforms agreed to in the national dialogue conference will serve as the basis of a new constitution, which will be voted on in a popular referendum.
6. An “expanded” transitional government led by Assad’s regime will oversee the implementation of the new constitution and parliamentary elections.

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