Damascus defiance

Assad's first speech in six months shatters hopes for a solution to Syria's crisis any time soon

If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has so far defied all predictions of his imminent defeat, his televised speech on Sunday his first public address since last June belied expectations of a more conciliatory approach. Instead, the Damascus Opera House broadcast framed a defiant Assad, justifying his violent crackdown and rallying his supporters. He not only called Syria's opposition "puppets of the West" but also laid down his own conditions. These include an end to the alleged arming of "terrorist groups" by outside powers. Only then would the army halt its operations and the government contact opposition elements of its choice, he said, for a "national dialogue" on a national charter, followed by elections and a new cabinet. Western and Arab capitals, as well as the main opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), immediately rejected Assad's proposals, with the US State Department calling them "detached from reality".

According to UN estimates, more than 60,000 people have died and thousands have turned into refugees since the conflict began in March 2011. The Assad regime has lasted these 21 months because of its firepower and support inside and outside. Internally, Assad continues to enjoy the support of minorities as well as the Baathists and security forces. Diplomatically, Russia and China continue to back Assad. Meanwhile, having changed tactics late last year, the opposition forces have gained control of most of northern and eastern Syria. However, heavy aerial bombardment has prevented them from taking Damascus and other important cities. Even as the civilian death toll climbs, Syria is an all-round diplomatic failure.

As diplomacy, and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's efforts, seem headed nowhere, the regime remains a formidable coalition and the opposition looks divided. Moreover, if Assad eventually departs, the immediate challenge will be to restore order in a devastated country and secure its stockpile of chemical weapons, which could otherwise disappear across its borders via extremists in the opposition ranks and destabilise the entire Middle East. At the moment, there's little hope for a let-up in the bloodshed and deepening tragedy. Assad may have acknowledged the need for a political solution, but he continues to be unrealistic about the opposition to him.

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