Assad Sees Writing on the Wall

Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad offered a conciliatory tone in his speech at a Damascus University on Monday. He acknowledged the protesters had legitimate grievances and even referred to them as patriots at one point. Al-Assad also scaled back his remarks on the protesters’ motivation. “They aren’t connected with any external force. They want to participate. They want justice. They don’t want to be marginalized.” Only later in the speech did he pick back up on the foreign conspiracy theory meme, albeit it played a lesser part to his message.

In doing this, however, he has not said outright what he intends to do other than open up, what he called, a “national dialogue.” There has been mention of reforms, the formation of political parties, and the possibility of rewriting the constitution that would lift some of the social controls the police state apparatus has imposed on the people of Syria for decades. The lack of specifics, however, has not gone unnoticed among the protesters.

“A national dialogue cannot happen when one side refuses to talk about the REAL issues and REAL situation,” said a Syrian activist based in Beirut who blogs under the name Malath Aumran. “We are on the 98th day of protest today and the Bashar is still in denial.”

Assad is not likely to reform himself out of power. The Syrian Baathist Party is brutal bunch much like its former sister regime in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In the eyes of Assad and his loyalists, as long as there is a Baathist Party, there is a Syria. Therefore, Asad intends to stay in power. In that regard, the notably more moderate address was probably more for the ears of Europe, Turkey, and the US than it was for his people. Of these powers, Turkey is of immediate importance to Assad.

Turkey, as it has always, stands on uneasy middle ground. A Muslim nation and a regional power, with an influential Islamic strain and history, naturally tie it to the Middle East. However, it is also a power with ambitions to join the EU and is currently a member of NATO. It is also democracy and a fairly free society with a growing economy. Its citizens have seen their per capita GDP triple since 2000. So it plays an inspiration in the region. Though the government itself has often sent mixed messages on the kind of role Turkey intends to play. Turkey sided with the recent demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt but backed Iran’s brutal crackdown on protesters over undemocratic elections in 2009. In the case of Libya, Prime Minister Erdogan sent mixed signals about NATO involvement. In response, some in the US questioned Turkey’s membership in NATO.

“We previously placed on record that we oppose foreign intervention over our friend and brother Libya. In this framework we want the attacks against civilians and bloodshed to be stopped immediately and achieve an immediate ceasefire” …

Now with a humanitarian crisis on its border and a flood of refugees pouring in, Turkey is beginning to take action against Assad’s regime. Prime Minister Erdogan delivered this statement to the Turkish press back in May.

“We don’t want to live through new Halabjas, new Hamas and Humus, new Bosnias.” Going further, Erdogan scolded Gadhafi, in what has also been read as a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying, “Leaders must take responsibility, make sacrifice, choose the humane and conscientious path with a view to changing the face, fate and image of these lands. While doing so, they should be inspired by the ancient civilizations of these lands.”

To show how things have escalated since May, Turkey is considering deploying military forces along its border and into Syria to establish a secure “buffer zone” for refugees and the Turkish population near the Syrian border. Other reports state that Turkey has conducted military reconnaissance flights into Syria’s northern territory. In what looks like an attempt to prevent the obvious next step, Prime Minister Erdogan informed the Syrian leader to end the violence and killing during a telephone conversation just a day after Assad’s speech.

For Asad, who wants to stay in power, that may be easier said than done. For Erdogan, who has a role to play in the region, may not ask again.

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