- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria | 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.

Within hours of Mr. Assad’s speech, residents of the port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people - although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing into the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.

Mr. Assad said Wednesday that 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 for him and shouted support from their seats. “But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it.”

He made only a passing reference to the protesters’ calls for change, saying “we are for reform” and promising that certain measures were being studied.

Social networking sites immediately exploded with activists’ calls for Syrians to take to the streets.

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 proposed reforms. Those include lifting the state of emergency laws, which have been in place since 1963 and give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.

Mr. Assad had been widely expected to formally announce the 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.

Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

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

Mr. Assad fired his 32-member Cabinet on Tuesday in a move designed to pacify the anti-government demonstrators, but the overture was largely symbolic. Mr. Assad holds the lion’s share of power in the authoritarian regime, and the current leadership has no real opposition figures or alternatives.

After waiting for days for the president’s address, many Syrians said it would be better if he had not spoken.

“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.”

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