- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed “conspirators” Wednesday for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his authoritarian rule, but he failed to lift the country’s despised emergency law or offer any concessions in his first speech since the protests began nearly two weeks ago.

Mr. Assad said Syria is facing “a major conspiracy” that aims to weaken this country of 23 million. The Assad family has ruled Syria for nearly 40 years, using the feared security services to monitor and control even the smallest rumblings of opposition. Draconian laws have all but eradicated civil liberties and political freedoms.

“We don’t seek battles,” Mr. Assad, 45, said in an unusually short, televised speech before legislators, who cheered him and shouted support from their seats. “But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it.”

Mr. Assad’s speech was surprising not so much for what he said but for what he left out. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, said last week that Syria had formed a committee to study a series of reforms and constitutional amendments, including lifting the state of emergency laws, in place since Mr. Assad’s Baath party took power in 1963.

Mr. Assad was widely expected to formally announce those changes. But the fact that he failed to mention any of them was a major disappointment for thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets since March 18, calling for reform. Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

Within minutes of his speech, social networking sites exploded with activists expressing major disappointment, with some calling on Syrians to take to the streets immediately.

“The fact that he is blaming everything on conspirators means that he does not even acknowledge the root of the problem,” said Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian lawyer and pro-reform activist. “I don’t have an explanation for this speech, I am in a state of shock. … There are already calls for a day of anger on Friday. This cannot sit well with the Syrian people.”

Mr. Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, Hafez, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by offering minor concessions and brutal crackdowns.

The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.

The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders, given its role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front-line state against Israel.