Syrian president blames crisis on 'saboteurs'
Published Monday, June 20, 2011 9:21AM EDT
The protests taking place in Syria are not motivated by a desire for reform, but rather the desire to vandalize, said the country's embattled president said on Monday.
Syria has faced months of riots and demonstrations, often with deadly consequences, as part of the so-called Arab spring movement taking place across much of the region.
Syrian President Bashar Assad went on television Monday to question the legitimacy of the revolution, which he said was led by "saboteurs."
"What is happening today has nothing to do with reform, it has to do with vandalism," Assad told thousands of supporters at Damascus University.
"There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism. ... We have to isolate the saboteurs."
Assad, who has now made three public appearances since protests began in March, also warned that continued political protests could do serious damage to Syria's frail post-recession economy.
The protests in Syria were inspired by riots in Tunisia earlier this year that led to the resignation of that country's president.
Spinoff protests have taken place in Yemen, Morocco, Egypt and elsewhere.
But the message from Assad's government has been that the general public has little to do with the demonstrations, which it says are being led by armed thugs and foreign influences.
The government even organized a trip recently for foreign diplomats and journalists to a northern town where 120 security personnel were allegedly killed by armed groups two weeks ago.
According to opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed since the unrest began, and 10,000 detained as forces try to shut down the movement.
It is also believed that 11,000 Syrians have fled to nearby Turkey, and another 5,000 Syrians have fled their homes and are living in refugee camps along the border, but still within Syria.
Assad has offered some olive branches to the protesters, but they may be too little too late for the group, whose members say they will now only be satisfied with the defeat of his regime.
Among his offerings, Assad has lifted archaic laws that give authorities free rein to make indiscriminate arrests during a crisis. He also gave Syrian citizenship to thousands of Kurds as an attempt to gain their support.
He also announced a committee that would study constitutional amendments, including a move that would allow other parties to have a voice in Syria besides the ruling Baath Party. Assad said a package of reforms would be ready to be tabled as early as September.
In March, Assad fired his entire cabinet and suggested reforms would follow.
CTV's Martin Seemungal, reporting from Jerusalem, said the speech offered little to appease angry demonstrators seeking major reform.
In fact, protesters immediately took to the streets following Assad's speech.
"This speech didn't give anyone anything new," Seemungal told CTV News Channel.
"There had been a promise it was going to be a significant speech and that perhaps it would give the opposition...some hope that he was going to listen to their demands but he didn't do that in any way, and they have reacted quite angrily and taken to the streets."
On Monday, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad has two options: either stay and enact legitimate reforms, or leave office.
He called on neighbouring Turkey to step up.
"I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside," Hague said as he arrived in Luxembourg for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.
With files from The Associated Press