Speech by President Bashar al-Assad to the Syrian parliament on 30 March 2011 in response to a wave of protests around the country.
March 30, 2011
Ladies and gentlemen, members of the People’s Assembly,
It gives me a great pleasure to meet you once again in this distinguished place, to talk to you about the conditions engulfing Syria and the region and to address, through you, all the children of Syria; Syria which is at the heart of everyone of us, the invincible castle, with its glories, with its people in every governorate, city, town, and village.
I speak to you at this exceptional moment when events and developments pose a great test to our unity and self denial. It is a test which is repeated every now and then because of the continued conspiracy against this country. Thanks to our will, solidarity, and the will of God that we succeed in facing it every time in a manner which enhances our strength and pride.
The Syrian people are entitled to hold their heads high. I talk to you from the heart with feelings of pride for belonging to this great people, with gratitude for their love; yet I speak with feelings of sadness and sorrow for the events which claimed the lives of our brothers and children. My responsibility remains that I should protect the security of this country and ensure its stability. This remains the ever-dominant feeling in my heart and mind.
I know that the Syrian people have been waiting for this speech since last week; and I intentionally postponed it until I have a fuller picture in my mind, or at least some of the main features of this picture, so that my speech should depart from the emotional rhetoric which puts people at ease, but does not change anything or make any impact at a time when our enemies work every day in an organized, systematic and scientific manner in order to undermine Syria’s stability. We acknowledge that they had been smart in choosing very sophisticated tools in what they have done; but at the same time we realize that they have been stupid in choosing the country and the people, for such conspiracies do not work with our country or our people.
We tell them that you have only one choice, which is to learn from your failure, while the Syrian people have only the choice of continuing to learn from their successes.
You are fully aware of the great shifts and changes happening in our region for the past few months. They are important changes which will have repercussions throughout the region without exception, including the Arab countries and maybe far beyond. This obviously concerns Syria, because Syria is part of this region.
But if we want to consider what concerns us in Syria in what has happened so far on the larger Arab scene, we can say that what happened vindicates the Syrian perspective, in the sense that it expresses a popular consensus. When there is such a consensus we should be assured, whether we agree or disagree on a number of points. What this means is that this popular Arab condition, which has been marginalized for three or four decades, is now at the heart of developments in our region. This Arab condition has not changed. They tried to domesticate it, but it has not yielded.
As far as we are concerned, you recall that in my speeches I always spoke about the Arab street, the fact that it gives direction, about citizens’ views. Many in the media used it to express cynicism, and many politicians used to reject that and smile slyly, particularly when I used to meet them while Syria was under a lot of pressure. They used to propose ideas which were contrary to our interests and which implied conspiring against the resistance and against other Arabs. When pressures intensified, I used to tell them that even if I accept this the people will not. And if the people do not accept it, they will reject me. And if they do, that means political suicide for me. They used to smile, of course, implying that they did not believe me. Today, after these events, there have been several meetings, and I repeated the same words. Now they were shaking their heads in agreement.
This is very important. On the other hand, and since the Arab peoples refused to be domesticated and have not changed at heart, we have to work harder to heal the rift in the Arab world if changes in the region continue to take the same course, particularly working on the people to achieve certain objectives.
The other thing concerning the Arab peoples’ concern about core Arab issues, particularly the Palestinian cause, we believe – and I hope rightly so – that the changes in the region will change the course that the Palestinian cause has taken at least for the past two or three decades and shift from a process of making concessions to a process of holding to rights. So, we believe that there are indications that what is happening is positive.
Syria is not isolated from what is happening in the Arab world. We are part of this region. We influence and are influenced by it, but at the same time we are not a copy of other countries. No country is exactly like any other country. We in Syria have certain characteristics which might be different internally and externally from others.
On the internal level, our policies had been based on development, opening up, and communicating directly between myself and the Syrian people. I am speaking about principles regardless of certain negative and positive aspects and what has and has not been achieved. In principle, these are the pillars of our internal policy.
Our foreign policy has been based on holding to our national rights, holding to ban-Arab rights, to independence, to supporting Arab resistance when there is occupation. The link between domestic and foreign policies has always been the Syrian citizen. When the Syrian citizen is not the heart of domestic and foreign policies, this is a deviation; and it is the job of the country’s institutions to correct this deviation.
The net outcome of these policies has been an unprecedented case of national unity which has been the real force which has protected Syria during the past years when pressures intensified against Syria. Thanks to this outcome that we have been able to dismantle huge minefields which have faced Syrian policy. We have been able to maintain Syria’s central role and position. But this has not deterred the enemies. Of course I have just started to talk about this conspiracy, and then I will move to the internal situation, so that satellite T.V. stations will not say that the Syrian president considered all that has happened a foreign conspiracy. We have to start with the main elements, and then make the connections.
Maintaining this role or strengthening it, based on principles rejected by others, will make enemies try their best to weaken it through other means. I have always warned against rejoicing when we succeed, because success leads to a feeling of safety and complacency. I say that when you are in a battle, you know your enemy, you know the plan. But after the battle, you do not know what the enemy is preparing for you. So, after every success we should work harder in order to maintain our success and protect ourselves against any conspiracy which might be hatched against us in the outside world. And I am sure you all know that Syria is facing a great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and far-away countries, with some inside the country. This conspiracy depends, in its timing not in its form, on what is happening in other Arab countries.
Today, there is a new fashion which they call “revolutions”. We do not call them so because we think this is mostly a popular condition. As far as they are concerned, if something happens in Syria, then it has a cover: there is a revolution there so there is a revolution here: there is reform there, so there is reform here. The tools are the same: the slogans and talking about freedom. Consequently, if there are calls for reform – and I believe we all call for reform – we get along with them without knowing what is really happening. That is why they mixed up, in a very smart manner, three elements. I know that most of the people who are listening to us, and you represent them, know a great deal about these details. Nevertheless, I will discuss them once again in order to harmonize our concepts based on the available information so far. There might be things which will be revealed later. So, they mixed up three elements: sedition, reform, and daily needs. Most of the Syrian people call for reform, and you are all reformers. Most of the Syrian people have unmet needs; and we all discuss, criticize, and have our disagreements because we have not met many of the needs of the Syrian people. But sedition has become part of the issue and started to lead the other two factors and take cover under them. That is why it was easy to mislead many people who demonstrated in the beginning with good intensions. We cannot say that all those who demonstrated are conspirators. This is not true, and we want to be clear and realistic.
The conspirators are few in number, this is natural. Even we, in the government, did not know, like everybody else, and did not understand what was happening until acts of sabotage started to emerge. Things became clearer; for what is the link between reform and sabotage? What is the link between reform and murder? Some satellite T.V. stations actually spoke about attacking certain buildings an hour before they were actually attacked. How did they know that? Do they read the future? This happened more than once. Then, things started to become clearer. They will say that we believe in the conspiracy theory. In fact there is no conspiracy theory. There is a conspiracy.
It was difficult for us to fight against this situation, because people will mix between our fighting sedition and fighting reform. In principle, we support reform and meeting people’s needs. This is the duty of the state. But we cannot be with sedition. When the Syrian people, with their natural and patriotic awareness, realized what was happening, things became easier. And the response actually came from the people more than it came from the state. As you have seen, the state refrained from taking action and left the response to the people. This has provided the sound, safe, and patriotic treatment and restored national unity very quickly to Syria.
What we are seeing today is a stage; and we do not know whether it is a first stage or an advanced stage. But we are concerned with the outcome because the last stage for them is for Syria to get weaker and disintegrate, because this will remove the last obstacle facing the Israel’s plans. This is what concerns us. We are not concerned with the process, because we know that they will continue and will repeat what they had been doing in one form or another. Every experience will be based on the previous one. So if they fail, they will develop this experience. And if we succeed, we need to build on this experience. I have been advised by many people not to talk about details and to stick to generalities, but I will address these details as usual in order to be fully transparent.
In the beginning they started with incitement, many weeks before trouble started in Syria. They used the satellite T.V. stations and the internet but did not achieve anything. And then, using sedition, started to produce fake information, voices, images, etc. they forged everything. Then they started to use the sectarian element. They sent SMSs to members of a certain sect alerting them that another sect will attack them. And in order to be credible, they sent masked people to neighborhoods with different sects living in them, knocking on people’s doors and telling each that that the other sect has already attacked and are on the streets, in order to get a reaction. And it worked for a while. But we were able to nip the sedition in the bud by getting community leaders to meet and diffuse the situation. Then they used weapons. They started killing people at random; because they knew when there is blood it becomes more difficult to solve the problem.
We have not yet discovered the whole structure of this conspiracy. We have discovered part of it but it is highly organized. There are support groups in more than one governorate linked to some countries abroad. There are media groups, forgery groups and groups of “eye-witnesses”.
They started in the governorate of Daraa. Some say that Daraa is a borderline governorate. I say that if Daraa is on the borders, it is in the heart of every Syrian. And if Darra is not in the middle of Syria, yet it is the throbbing heart of Syria and all the Syrians. This is how it is defined and this is how it is now. Daraa is on the frontline with the Israeli enemy; and it is the first line of defense for the hinterland. Daraa, al-Qunaitira, and part of rural Damascus defend the other parts of Syria which lie behind them. No one can be in a position defending the homeland and at the same time conspiring against it. This is impossible and is unacceptable. The people of Daraa have no responsibility for what happened, but with us, they share the responsibility of putting an end to sedition. In that, we and the whole Syrian population are with Daraa. The people of Daraa are people of genuine patriotism, magnanimity, and dignity. They will get hold of the few people who wanted to stir chaos and destroy the national fabric.
The conspirators took their plan to other governorates. As you know, they moved to Latakia and other cities using the same techniques; murder, intimidation, and incitement. There were clear instructions not to harm any Syrian citizens. But unfortunately, when things move to the street, and dialogue is conducted in the street and outside institutions, things naturally become chaotic and reaction rather than action rules the day. What we might call mistakes of the moment become the dominant mode and people get killed. This is what happened and you all know that.
In any case, the blood that was spilled on the streets is Syrian blood, and we are all concerned because the victims are our brothers and their families are our families. It is important to look for the causes and those behind these events. We need to investigate and bring the people responsible to account. This has happened anyway, but let it be for bringing about national unity rather than disuniting the Syrians. Let it be for strengthening the country rather than weakening it, for putting an end to sedition rather than enflaming it. Let us act as quickly as possible to heal our wounds and restore harmony to our larger family and maintain love as our uniting bond.
Part of what has happened is similar to what happened in 2005. It is a virtual war. I said at the time that they want us to surrender through waging on us a virtual war using the media and the internet, although the internet was not as widespread as it is today. They wanted us to feel that things were over and our only choice was to surrender without putting any fight. Today, the principle is the same. They want us to incur a virtual defeat but using different methods. There is some confusion in the country for different reasons, mainly under the headline of reform. With is chaos, using reform as a cover, using sectarianism, where sects become nervous, they clash with each other, virtual defeat is achieved in another form. In 2005 we warded off this virtual defeat through popular awareness. Today, things are obviously more difficult, because the internet is more widespread, and because the instruments are more modern. But the popular awareness we have seen was sufficient to respond very quickly. Nevertheless, I say that we should not feel complacent with what we have got. We need to strengthen this national patriotic awareness because it is the real force which protects Syria at every juncture.
However, there is an essential question. We are talking about changes in the region in the sense that it is a wave; and whenever we meet someone, they say there is a wave and you have to bow. Despite what we said about the positive aspects of this wave, should we be led by the wave or should we lead? When this wave touched Syria, the issue has become of concern to the Syrians. We have to use it as a wave of energy according to our interests. We should be proactive rather than reactive.
I use this in order to move to what we announced Thursday, after the meeting of the Ba’th Party Regional Command, when we announced a salary increase, and referred to a Party Law and the Emergence Law. I am trying to explain how we think. I am not adding new things, but when you know how we think we harmonize our visions. When something happens and we make a decision, you understand how the state is thinking. There is usually a lack of communication. We have things which we do not know how to market. Sometimes we think they are good things but are misunderstood.
So, did we make these reforms because there is a problem or because there is sedition? If there was no sedition wouldn’t we have done these reforms? If the answer is yes, it means that the state is opportunistic, and this is bad. If we say that these things were made under the pressure of a certain condition or popular pressure, this is weakness. And I believe that if the people get the government to bow under pressure, it will bow to foreign pressure. The principle is wrong. The relationship between the government and the people is not that of pressure or based on pressure. It is based on the needs of society; and these needs are the rights of society. It is the state’s duty to meet these needs. When people demand their rights, it is natural that the government should respond to these demands happily. Even if the government is unable to meet these demands, it should say so. It depends on the type of dialogue. The only pressure that a government official should feel is the lack of people’s confidence in him, the pressure of the responsibility he has towards the people, and the greatest pressure of all is that of the national and patriotic awareness that we have seen. It was unprecedented and it astonished us as it has done every time. All these pressures make us think how to show our gratitude to this people by providing development, reform and prosperity.
The things announced Thursday were not decisions, because those were the decisions of the Ba’th Party Regional Conference in 2005. And there were two reasons for that: one is that the content of the decisions is not related to the crisis, it is related to our need for reform. When we proposed these ideas in 2005 there was no pressure on Syria. One year before, in 2004, in the Tunis Summit, which was the first Arab Summit after the Invasion of Iraq, there was a state of collapse and submission to America. The United States wanted to impose on us reform and democracy. We fought against this project in the Arab Summit and it failed.
In 2005 we proposed the same subjects but for our country and the reforms were home grown and not under pressure. The pressure had nothing to do with this; it had to do with the resistance, with Iraq, and with foreign policy issues. When I talked about the three elements: sedition, reform, and people’s needs, I think what was needed to put an end to sedition was only popular awareness. As to reform, we already started the reform, there were delays, and this is an indication that it has actually started. The reforms were not intended to fight sedition because the impacts of reform are usually long-term. Some people say that the government made promises to reform but never followed them through. In order to understand this point I will quickly review the reform process since 2000.
It is true that we talked about this at the time but only in headlines. The picture was not very clear about the shape of that reform. Two months after the speech I gave in this magnificent place, the Intifada happened and the conspiracy against the resistance started, and pressures mounted. Then there was 09/11. Islam, Muslims, and Arabs were all accused. There was the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Syria was supposed to pay a price for its position to invasion.
You know what happened in Lebanon in 2005, and later the war of 2006 and its repercussions, and the war against Gaza at the end of 2008. So, the whole period was that of continued pressure. What added to the problems was that we had four years of drought which damaged our economic program. What happened at that time was a change of priorities, and this is an important point. I spoke about this in more than one interview, but I think I spoke to foreign media. I said that these events made us change our priorities. Of course I am not justifying. I am simply explaining these facts and separating the subjective from the objective. When I say that we had drought, this is beyond our powers. But it does not mean that there aren’t any measures that could be taken in order to improve the economy. Those who were ten-years old in 2000 are now twenty, so generations should know about these conditions.
The top priority became Syria’s stability; and now we are at a stage when we can appreciate this stability. The other top priority was related to living conditions. I meet many people, and ninety nine percent of my conversation with them revolves around living conditions. Obviously there are grievances, but living conditions remain the major element.
This does not justify lagging behind on other issues, but we did not focus much on political issues like the emergency law and the party law. The reason is that when there are human issues at stake, they cannot be postponed. We can postpone a party statement for months or even years, but we cannot postpone providing food for children for breakfast. We can postpone something which is caused by the emergency law or other legal or administrative measures which cause problems for the population, but we cannot postpone something which causes a child to suffer when the child’s parents do not have enough money to treat him or because the government does not have a certain medicine. This is something we face on a daily basis; and I am sure that you as members of the People’s Assembly face.
So the issue was that of priorities. At least in 2009-2010 things were better and it was possible to introduce some of these reforms. As for the party law, the Regional Command has actually drafted a law but we had not discussed it. There might have been some delay but we will leave that to people to judge. But hadn’t we wanted to make these reforms, we would not have made them in 2005. We would have done them under pressure. Things might get delayed because of bureaucracy, negligence, or other things. We all are part of this people and we know how things are. It is important to explain this in order to know where we are and to know the content of the reforms. Now there is a new People’s Assembly in the near future and there will be a new local administration. There will be soon a new government and there will be a regional conference. So 2011 will see new blood and we will move to another stage. We postponed the regional conference because we knew that we need to account for what we have done. We needed to do these things and present them to the conference. We have been thinking of having new blood in all areas.
What I want to say is that reform for us is not a fashion. It is not a reflection of this new wave which is sweeping the region. What I said in my interview with the Wall Street Journal two months ago, when things started unfolding in Egypt. They asked me ‘are you going to introduce reforms?’ I said that, ‘if you had not already started, and if you had not had the intention and the plan, now it is too late and there is no point in wasting our time.’
Many officials, particularly foreign officials, tell me that they think that the president is a reformer but those around him restrain him. I tell them that on the contrary the people around me are pushing me hard to do these reforms. What I want to say is that there are no obstacles, there are simply delays. No one opposes reform because those who oppose it have a vested interest and are corrupt. You all know them they were very few and now they are no longer here. The real challenge is what kind of reform we want. That is why we need to avoid subjecting the reform process to momentary conditions, otherwise it will be counterproductive.
We have been talking about reform for the past ten years, and our reform today should reflect the past ten years and the next ten years. It should not only reflect this stage or this wave whether it is internal or external. This is how we are thinking. Changes might delay or precipitate reform, change its direction, make us build on other countries’ experiences. For instance, Tunisia’s experience was useful for us more than that of Egypt, because in Tunisia there was a model and we used to send experts to learn from that experience. When the revolution started, we realized that the causes lied in the way wealth was distributed, not only in terms of corruption but also in terms of geographical distribution. This is something that we have tried to avoid, and we are calling for a fair distribution of development in Syria.
In principle, we cannot say that we do not want reform because this will be destructive to the whole country, but the main challenge is finding out what kind of reform you want and we need all our skills as Syrians when we start discussing the laws which will be proposed soon. The measures announced last Thursday did not start from square one because as I said the Regional Command already made drafts for the emergency law and the party law more than a year ago.
There are other draft laws which will be debated publically and then they will be discussed by the relevant institutions before they are passed. There are other measures which were not announced on Thursday: some of them are related to strengthening national unity and others related to fighting corruption, the media and creating jobs. These will be announced after they are fully studied. The former government started these studies and they will be a priority for the new government. For instance, the salary increases were discussed in our meeting with the economic team. I headed that meeting and we discussed a package of economic decisions and only the salary decision was taken. There is more to follow.
Talking about this, and about the one thousand five hundred Syrian pounds increase, the government received complaints and they responded. About an hour ago I received an amendment to their decision to solve this problem. We should give them credit for the work they have done on their own initiative and not responding to instructions. I just wanted to make that clear to the Syrian citizens. I hope that we will be able, during the next month, to identify the measures that need to be taken. And I will ask for a timeframe for every measure. Of course you in the People’s Assembly and in the next assembly will make sure that there are time frames for any measure, because this will help regulate work. Some people ask me to announce a time frame at the People’s Assembly but I think putting a time frame is purely technical. I might put a time frame which is shorter than what is necessary and in that case the pressure of time will affect quality. I think our duty is to provide the Syrian people with the best, not with the fastest. We want to proceed quickly, but we do not want to be hasty.
In any case, I am sure there will be someone on the satellite T.V. stations who will say that this is not enough. What is enough for them will destroy our country and we simply cannot afford that. By the way, do not get angry for what some T.V. stations have done, because they always fall in the same trap when they try to fabricate things for us and for the Syrian people. The fact is that they follow the principle of lie, lie until they believe you. So, they believe their own lie and fall in the trap.
Brothers and sisters, this might be a blessing in disguise. But we are humans and we cannot like what happened. We cannot like sedition, we cannot like killing, we cannot like tension, but crises are a positive condition if we can control them and get out of them victorious. The secret of Syria’s strength lies in the many crises it faced throughout its history, particularly after independence. We have to face the crises with great confidence and with a determination to win. Concern also should be a positive condition because it pushes us to move forward rather than escape forward because when we move forward we move with confidence, while when we escape forward we stumble and then fail. In times of crisis, many people just look for any solution, while it is actually better to stay without any solution if we do not find the right one. This is one of the lessons that we learned from these crises.
Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty; and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it. The Holy Quran says, “sedition is worse than killing,” so all those involved intentionally or unintentionally in it contribute to destroying their country. So there is no compromise or middle way in this. What is at stake is the homeland and there is a huge conspiracy. We are not seeking battles. The Syrian people are peaceful people, loving people, but we have never hesitated in defending our causes, interests and principles, and if we are forced into a battle, so be it.
I remind you of the “domino effect” term which was used after the invasion of Iraq when the United States assumed then under the former administration that the Arab countries are domino blocks and the American projects will hit just one of these blocks and the others will fall. What happened is the exact opposite when their projects turned into domino blocks, we hit them and they started to fall one after another. This one will fall too.
Since some people have short memory, I will refresh their memory once again by saying that not all of what is happening is a conspiracy, because I know that they are on the ready in their studios to comment.
As for you, children of this great nation, your love for your country which you express day after day and which is clearer than ever at times of crisis, and which you particularly expressed yesterday through your unprecedented mass demonstrations throughout the country gives me more confidence and determination. Your solidarity and unity in fighting sedition assures me about the future and if you, in the slogans you chanted, expressed willingness to sacrifice yourselves for your president, the more natural thing is for the president to sacrifice himself for his people and homeland. I shall remain the faithful brother and comrade who will walk with his people and lead them to build the Syria we love, the Syria we are proud of, the Syria which is invincible to its enemies.
Thank you very much.