AFP - Getty Images
This videograb from Syrian state television shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivering a speech in Damascus on Tuesday.
CAIRO – It was a speech that was long in form, but short on new substance.
For the first time since June, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad spoke publicly, addressing a crowd at Damascus University in a nearly two-hour speech that was carried live on state television and around the Arab world.
But if Assad is under increasing international pressure and isolation, he certainly did not show it.
In fact, he was defiant as ever, seemingly casual at times but confident with his government’s course of action. At one point, he dismissed calls to step down, saying that while he never sought power, he would also not shy away from his responsibilities as the country's ruler.
The speech followed the same talking points the Syrian regime has been consistently delivering: There will be no let-up in the crackdown on what Syria describes as terrorists who are undermining the state and its sovereignty. Foreign hands are at work to divide Syria and sow sedition in an attempt to conquer the broader region.
But perhaps the strongest words from the president’s speech were targeted at the Arab League, the pan-Arab regional body, which has condemned Syria and sanctioned it for its violet crackdown on protesters that the U.N. estimates has killed 5,000 people since March 2011.
He even said the Arab League should be called the “Foreign League.” With that comment he seemed to be playing to his audience, if there is one thing that irks people across the Arab world uniformly it’s the notion of foreign powers intervening in their domestic affairs.
Tough spot for Arab League
Analysts say the Arab League is in a difficult position. Its 165-person observer mission in Syria is tasked with making sure Damascus complies with an agreement aimed at ending the violence. The mission has drawn criticism for its work and its composition – including the fact that a Sudanese general who has been accused of war crimes himself is in charge of the mission.
The observer mission is expected to submit its full report on Jan. 19 in Cairo. Russia says the mission is helping stabilize the country, but according to activists inside and outside Syria, the death toll continues to rise, leading many in the opposition to worry the mission could simply serve as a political cover for the continued crackdown.
Syrian opposition groups say the Syrian government is limiting the mobility and ability of the mission to freely see the facts on the ground. A group of Arab League observers were reportedly attacked by “unknown protesters” in the northern city of Latakia on Monday.
Opposition groups say they want the Arab League to refer the Syria crisis to the United Nations Security Council. But doing so may prove to be a double edge sword for the Arab body which does not want to appear as having given the green light for foreign action in yet another Arab country.
The fear among some within the Arab League, according to sources I have spoken to, is that such a move would pave the way for international intervention in Syria that could ultimately take the shape of military action. However, Western powers have expressed their unwillingness for any foreign military action in Syria like that in Libya.
The Arab League was criticized when it referred Libya to the United Nations. That move ultimately led to NATO military intervention that helped topple the Gadhafi regime.
Louai Beshara / AFP - Getty Images
Syrians watch President Bashar al-Assad's address on television in a cafe in Damascus on Tuesday.
The current Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby previously told me the Libya decision was a mistake (he was not the Secretary General at the time of that vote) and he did not want it repeated under his leadership.
The Syrian opposition has concluded that the Arab League is divided and weak to take any further actions to stop the bloodshed. But they are divided as well.
The opposition movements both inside and outside of Syria have been criticized for their inability to build a cohesive decision-making opposition body that could allay the fears of regional countries and also meet the immediate demands of the Syrian people in a possible post-Assad Syria.
‘A challenge of biblical proportions’
The larger international community isn’t stepping up to fill the leadership void, either. The international community is reluctant to get involved in Syria as it did in Libya. The regional fallout could be greater following any intervention in Syria than it was for Libya.
Security experts say Syria's military capabilities are far greater than Libya's and that poses a whole host of challenges.
“There are questions as to whether the process could be repeated, for example, in Syria,” said Jeremy Binnie, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s, the defense and security intelligence provider. “Russia and China have expressed concerns that the U.N. resolution to protect Libyan civilians was loosely interpreted, the allies were up against inferior air defenses and the potential geo-strategic ramifications of the intervention were comparatively limited.”
Binnie explained how the situation in Syria differs from Libya. “The Syrian regime would be a significantly harder to topple and the fallout potentially far more serious, especially given the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Libya’s air defenses were a push over by comparison. Syria would be a challenge of biblical proportions compared with Libya.”
Hanging in the balance
For now, Assad says his government will press ahead with reforms while pushing for wider political participation from opposition groups. The president boldly promised that a new constitution would be put up for referendum later this spring and new elections would be held shortly after, a timetable that analysts say is unlikely to produce genuine reform.
Opposition groups have dismissed these as half-hearted measures and duplicitous. But with a divided opposition, timid Arab neighbors and an international community that lacks consensus on what to do, Assad has found a balance in which he continues to remain in power.
In Bashar Assad's first speech since June he vowed to use an "iron fist" when dealing with "terrorists." NBC's Brian Williams reports.
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