Syria’s Assad says he will consider reforms

Demonstrators do not believe president, accuse him of clinging to power

Syrian President Bashar Assad said Monday his regime would consider political reforms, including ending his Baath Party's monopoly in politics, but thousands of enraged protesters accused him of clinging to power and took to the streets shouting, "Liar!" (Associated Press)Syrian President Bashar Assad said Monday his regime would consider political reforms, including ending his Baath Party’s monopoly in politics, but thousands of enraged protesters accused him of clinging to power and took to the streets shouting, “Liar!” (Associated Press)
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BEIRUT — Syria’s president said Monday his regime would consider political reforms, including ending his Baath Party’s monopoly in politics, but thousands of enraged protesters accused him of clinging to power and took to the streets shouting, “Liar!”

In a 70-minute, televised speech, Bashar Assad acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but he rehashed allegations that “saboteurs” were exploiting Syria’s 3-month-old pro-democracy uprising.

He also called for national dialogue but warned that “there is no political solution with those who carry arms and kill.”

“There are those who have demands that they want the state to meet, and I have spoken before about the legitimate demands. This is one of the state’s duties toward its people,” Mr. Assad told supporters at Damascus University, speaking from a podium flanked by six Syrian flags.

He said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

Syrian citizens in Damascus watch television as President Bashar Assad delivers a speech on Monday. (Associated Press)

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Syrian citizens in Damascus watch television as President Bashar Assad delivers a ... more >

He said he expects a package of reforms by September or the end of the year at the latest. Parliamentary elections, scheduled for August, might be postponed if the reform committee decides to delay them, the president said.

But the speech signaled Mr. Assad’s clear intent to try to ride out the wave of protests, showing the steely determination that has kept his family in power for 40 years, playing on fears his downfall could usher in chaos.

“We want the people to back the reforms, but we must isolate true reformers from saboteurs,” he said.

Other besieged dictators across the Middle East — notably Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — used the same argument as they sought to hold onto power during the Arab Spring, warning of chaos in their wake.

In Syria, the warning has a special resonance, given the country’s volatile mix of ethnic groups and religious minorities.

The speech’s vague timetable and few specifics — and lack of any clear move toward ending the Assad family’s political domination — left Syrian dissidents deeply dissatisfied.

“It did not give a vision about beginning a new period to start a transfer from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism,” Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure, told the Associated Press.

Activists said protests erupted in several towns, including in the restive northern province of Idlib, in the cities of Homs, Hama and Latakia in central Syria, and in the southern town of Daraa, where major protests first flared in mid-March.

Many shouted that the people want to see Mr. Assad go.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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