Syria's President Bashar al-Assad makes a public address on January 6, 2013, at the opera house in Damascus
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad makes a public address on the latest developments in the country on January 6, 2013, at the opera house in Damascus in this picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency. Assad's first speech since June showed he remains confident enough in his military strength after 21 months of conflict to thumb his nose at demands for his exit, analysts say. © - SANA/AFP/File
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad makes a public address on January 6, 2013, at the opera house in Damascus
Sarah Benhaida, AFP
Last updated: January 7, 2013

Assad thumbing his nose at exit talk

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's first speech since June showed he remains confident enough in his military strength after 21 months of conflict to thumb his nose at demands for his exit, analysts say.

Assad broke his silence after the regime weathered a storm of devastating events over the summer and autumn, said Thomas Pierret, Syria specialist and professor at the University of Edinburgh.

They included a bomb attack that killed four top security officials, the rebels' capture of half of second city Aleppo and the loss of control over the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

"Today, the situation is stabilising a bit. The regime won't win the war, but it knows it will still go on for some time," Pierret said.

"All of these developments are giving breathing space to a regime doomed in the future, which explains the timing of the speech.

"The international situation is also reassuring to Assad. After seeming to back the National Coalition and the new Free Syrian Army command, the West is again working with the Russians on a political solution though they know it is very unrealistic," said Pierret.

"These developments are a lifeline for a regime that is condemned in the medium term.

"It is the discourse of war. Assad is totally inflexible and resistant to the idea of a genuine process of political transition."

Karim Bitar, research director at the Paris Institute for International and Strategic Relations, said it was likely that Assad knew that the United States and Russia were holding talks on Syria.

"And these talks will give him a respite and he should be able to cling to power until at least the end of his mandate in 2014, as he waits for what he calls the 'Arab Spring bubble' to pop," Bitar said.

But Bitar said that ultimately the human toll of a conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives, according to the latest UN figures, meant that Assad's blueprint was too "little, too late."

"Too much blood has been spilled for the rebels to agree to stop here. Assad's proposal is far below what could be accepted by the rebels," he said.

Volker Perthes, director of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said Assad was giving a firm "no" to the peace initiative of UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who proposed a ceasefire to be followed by both parliamentary and presidential elections.

"Assad's political solution is in fact not a political solution, but a military one with a subsequent, post-victory political process totally controlled by the regime," he said.

In his speech, Assad gave no hint of any readiness to step down, offering only a national dialogue with opposition groups that were not "slaves" of the West.

Assad said the first condition for any transition would be for Western governments to stop backing the armed opposition and for it to cease its "terrorist attacks".

Fabrice Balanche, director of the Group for Research and Study of the Mediterranean and Middle East in Lyon, France, said the regime had been buoyed by recent advances in both the central city of Homs and the southwestern outskirts of Damascus.

"This was an appropriate time to boost the morale of his supporters because his army has made recent victories and Assad himself is still in power," Balanche said.

"The skill of Assad is in communicating that it is not he who refuses dialogue, but rather the opposition that rejects him as an interlocutor."

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