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Syrian President gives no quarter Add to ...

Syria, the latest Arab state to come under pressure for reform from large public protests, is now the latest state to declare war on those protesters.

It's a bold gamble by President Bashar al-Assad, who believes he can ride out the demonstrations and act with impunity against any who protest in the streets. He disappointed many Syrians and international observers when, in a widely anticipated address, he declined to announce any substantial political reforms that have been called for in recent protests.

"Implementing reforms is not a fad," Mr. al-Assad said Wednesday. "When it is just a reflection of a wave that the region is living, it is destructive."

He warned that "Syria today is being subjected to a big conspiracy, whose threads extend from countries near and far," and that "some satellite channels" are part of the conspiracy. "They reported on destruction of public property before it had taken place."

"The foremost priority," he insisted, "is Syria's stability" and he will do whatever he has to do in order to preserve that stability.

The country was expecting a very different speech, a Western diplomat in Damascus said. "A great opportunity has been lost."

"What did they expect?" asked Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel. "This the way the Middle East works."

"It was a tough speech. He's not giving an inch. But he smiled and laughed, and appeared relaxed. It was a speech his father would be proud of."

(His father, Hafez al-Assad, presided over Syria from 1971 to 2000, during which he ruthlessly dealt with any public criticism. When members of the Muslim Brotherhood revolted against the regime in the city of Hama in 1982, the senior Mr. al-Assad ordered a large section of the city levelled. Several thousand people were buried in the process.)

Bashar al-Assad's strategy now seems clear: Much as the monarchs are doing in Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia - expressing sympathy for protesters, but doubling the guard at the same time - Mr. al-Assad is planning to act in a measured way and stay above the fray.

Yes to reform, he says, without specifics, but no to regime change, and no to public protests.

"Enemies of the country" the Syrian President warned, are taking advantage of the regional call for reforms to get the people to take to the streets. Those who join the protests are co-conspirators, he implied.

On the surface, it sounds similar to the approach first taken by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, but it's more likely to be more successful in Syria, most analysts agree.

"Regimes don't fall just because a few thousand people speak out against them," Mr. Rubin said. In both Tunisia and Egypt, it was the army that decided it was time for the leader to go. In Syria, the army is tightly controlled by the President and by other members of the minority Alawi community that runs the country.

"The opposition is small and controllable," added John Bell, director of Middle East programs at the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. And "of all the countries in the region, Syria is probably the most complex."

"Assad can portray himself as the only one who can hold the country together."

Indeed, the Alawites - a breakaway Shia sect viewed as heretical to Sunni Muslims - and Christians tend to support Mr. al-Assad because both communities fear Islamic extremists. Together, they make up about a quarter of the population. Kurds, as much as 10 per cent of the population, are largely Sunni but have their own ethnic agenda, and often are at odds with the government over their treatment.

"The Kurds are holding back to see what happens," Mr. Rubin said. "They're not looking for a beating from the government."

In the meantime, it's reported that a member of the Kurdish community is being offered a ministry in a new government. "This is how Assad works," Mr. Rubin said.

People in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, not far from the al-Assad home town, wasted little time in demonstrating their opposition to Mr. al-Assad's statements by taking to the streets late Wednesday. But Syrian security forces wasted even less time in dispersing them by firing shots into the air.

Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, will be the big test of how strong the opposition really is.

"If the people are confident they can bring change, they'll turn out in great numbers," said Adnan Abu Odeh, a former foreign policy adviser to Jordan's King Hussein.

"But, so far, it is Assad's supporters, not his critics, who are filling the streets," he said.

Having recently describing Mr. al-Assad as "a reformer," the Obama administration expressed disappointment in Wednesday's speech.

It "fell short" of the kind of reforms that Syrians have demanded, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, adding that Washington "would strongly condemn any violence against the protesters."

"Too late," Mr. Rubin says. "When they labelled him a reformer, he got a licence to kill. Unlike [Libyan leader Moammar]Gadhafi, there will be no international consequences to his actions.

"Don't get me wrong," Mr. Rubin said. "My sympathies are with the democratic reformers, but my analysis says that, from his own standpoint, Assad did the right thing.

"In the Middle East, nice guys don't just finish last, they don't finish at all."

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