Beirut, Lebanon – President Bashar al-Assad of Syria dismissed American and European calls for him to step down as “meaningless” on Sunday, and he declared that Syria’s ailing economy could withstand escalating international sanctions.
In an interview with Syrian television, Mr. Assad hardly mentioned the hundreds of thousands of protesters this summer who have posed the gravest challenge to his family’s four decades of rule.
He seemed intent on portraying a sense of strength and stability to a population growing ever more anxious over the violence that has erupted across Syria and the country’s increasing isolation.
“Syria will not fall unless there will be a crisis that will finish Syria and this can’t happen,” he said, wearing a blue suit and seeming relaxed. “I am reassured that the Syrians will come out of this crisis. I am not worried, and I want to reassure everybody.”
Referring only obliquely to the protests, he suggested that the solution was “political.” But despite insistent calls for him to refrain from using violence against demonstrators, he suggested that the security forces would continue the crackdown.
“The solution is political, but there are security situations that require the interference of security institutions,” he said.
Given the scope of the crisis, some Syrians expected him to take more drastic steps. Instead, as he has done in his speeches since the uprising began in March, he offered far more tentative measures, dwelling on the familiar tropes of his ruling Baath Party: laws, priorities and committees.
His statements suggested a yawning divide between the large segment of the population that wants him to step down and his government, which believes its notion of reform can satisfy demonstrations that have briefly wrested two of Syria’s five largest cities from state control and turned another into an urban battlefield.
Even for a government accustomed to bouts of isolation, the pressure from the United States and Europe is unprecedented. Last week, President Obama joined with European leaders in demanding that Mr. Assad surrender power “for the sake of the Syrian people.” The United Nations commissioner for human rights said a withering crackdown that, by the count of activists, has killed more than 2,000 people amounted to crimes against humanity. In August alone, the Syrian military and security forces assaulted many of Syria’s biggest cities: Hama, Deir al-Zour, Latakia and, most recently, Homs
More sanctions lie ahead. The European Union is expected this week to ban imports of Syrian oil, one of the government’s central sources of revenue. Though Syrian oil exports are a tiny share of the global supply, an estimated 90 percent of them are shipped to Europe.
Still, Mr. Assad insisted Sunday, “We can get all the resources and materials we need.”
When Mr. Assad assumed power in 2000, many Syrians looked to him as a potential reformer in one of the Middle East’s most authoritarian countries. He did help transform the economy, bringing at least a veneer of prosperity and consumerism to Syria’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
But political change was scant, and many of the ideas he discussed in the interview on Sunday — a new law that would allow multiple political parties, for instance — have been on the table since 2005.
He called the months ahead “a transitional period,” promising a new election law in addition to the legislation to allow parties in a country where the Baath Party leadership is enshrined in the Constitution. As he did in his last speech, in June, he said the Constitution could be revised, and he promised new parliamentary elections by February.
The government’s past steps have been dismissed by opposition figures as too tentative or even meaningless. Mr. Assad lifted nearly five decades of emergency law in April, but the crackdown that ensued, with more than 10,000 arrested and reports of rampant torture, belies the claim that civil rights are now in force.
While it remains unclear how far the political reforms may go, many analysts and diplomats expected them to move the country no farther toward democracy than what Egypt looked like under President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in February: a tame opposition, a somewhat more vocal media and a semblance of contested elections.
Mr. Assad reserved his harshest criticism for the international pressure on Syria, casting the steps against his government as part of a long history of outside interference. He called American and European calls for his resignation “meaningless.”
“This cannot be said to a president who was elected by the people,” said Mr. Assad, who won, officially, 97.6 percent of the vote in a referendum in 2007. (As usual, there was no other candidate.) “It can be said for a president who was brought by America and to a people who are submissive to America and take orders from it.”
He suggested that no step he took would satisfy the West.
“No matter what you do, they would still tell you it is not enough,” he said.
His leadership still enjoys some backing, particularly among the country’s minorities and in Damascus and Aleppo. But there are signs of growing anxiety, even among the government’s pillars of support, and some government supporters complain that the crackdown has so far failed to stanch dissent.
Since the beginning of the unrest, the government has said that while some protesters have legitimate grievances, the uprising is driven by militant Islamists with foreign backing. Mr. Assad said that he believed the protests had become more militant lately, especially last week, though he was not too concerned.
This article, “Assad Says He Rejects West's Calls to Resign” originally appeared at The New York Times.
Don’t miss your chance to give for #GivingTuesday!
Millions of people are supporting nonprofits like Truthout for #GivingTuesday. Will you join them?
As an independent newsroom, Truthout relies on reader donations to remain online. Your tax-deductible donation of any amount — even a few bucks! — helps make it possible for us to publish award-winning journalism that amplifies the voices of changemakers everywhere.