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Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad supporters hold Assad's poster with Arabic words reading: "I'll not kneel as long as you are my leader," as they demonstrate to show their support for their President, in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday March 29, 2011. (Bassem Tellawi/Bassem Tellawi/The Associated Press)
Pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad supporters hold Assad's poster with Arabic words reading: "I'll not kneel as long as you are my leader," as they demonstrate to show their support for their President, in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday March 29, 2011. (Bassem Tellawi/Bassem Tellawi/The Associated Press)

Syria's Assad blames 'international plot' for protests against regime Add to ...

Widely anticipated - hugely disappointing. That about sums up the speech today by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered in the parliament in Damascus.

While the captive MPs frequently interrupted the 40-minute presentation to declare their loyalty to the man and their willingness to sacrifice their blood for him, the President's words had very few specifics to offer the people who have taken to the Syrian streets in the past two weeks and whose blood really was shed.

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Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed since March 18 in a crackdown on the protests.

Indeed, Mr. al-Assad said that the recent upheaval in the country was a product of an "international plot" to compromise Syrian stability, and that enemies of the country were taking advantage of the widespread call for reforms to get the people to take to the streets.

Rather than open up Syrian media to freer expression, the President spent much of his speech blasting "certain satellite television channels" (presumably a reference to the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network) of "lying and more lying until people fall into their trap."

To those who hoped Mr. al-Assad would curtail the 40-year-old state of emergency that has allowed security forces to operate with impunity against anyone who criticized the regime, the President only suggested that it will be discussed in rounds of dialogue with a new government.

The country's protesters will be greatly disappointed by the slim pickings, and many of Syria's silent majority will shake their heads, but the words will reassure the supporters of the regime inside and outside the country that the Assad regime will not be one to crumble.

Mr. Assad had pledged to look into ending emergency laws, consider drafting laws on greater political and media freedom, and raise living standards - all potentially significant concessions to protesters emboldened by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Emergency laws have been used since 1963, when his Baath Party took power in a coup, to stifle political opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to a pervasive security apparatus in the country of 22 million.

"Assad is being subjected to internal and external pressures. He has prepared a plan to give the impression to public opinion that he has begun reforms," Maamoun al-Homsi, who was jailed for five years for demanding broader political freedoms, told Reuters from exile in Canada this week.

Mr. Assad sought to deflect the challenge to his 11-year rule on Tuesday by mobilizing tens of thousands of Syrians in mass rallies across the country and accepting the resignation of his government.

Sacking the government is seen as a cosmetic change since it has little authority in Syria, where power is concentrated in the hands of Mr. Assad, his family and the security apparatus.

But, increasingly incensed by a security crackdown on them, especially in the southern city of Deraa where protests first erupted, they later demanded the "downfall of the regime."

Deraa is a centre of tribes belonging to Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom resent the power and wealth amassed by the elite of the Alawite minority to which Mr. Assad belongs. The government has said Syria is the target of a plot to sow sectarian strife.

All gatherings and demonstrations not sponsored by the state are banned and media organizations operate under restrictions.

Mr. Assad's crackdown on protests has drawn international condemnation, including from the United States and close ally, neighbouring Turkey. But, Syria is unlikely to face the kind of foreign military intervention seen in Libya.

"We believe President Assad is at a crossroads," the U.S. State Department's spokesman Mark Toner said on Tuesday. "He has claimed to be a reformer for over a decade but he has made no substantive progress on political reforms and we urge him to ... address the needs and the aspirations of the Syrian people."

The British-educated president was welcomed as a "reformer" when he replaced his father in 2000. He allowed a short-lived "Damascus Spring" in which he tolerated debates that criticized Syria's autocratic rule, but later cracked down on critics.

With files from Reuters

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