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Assad's Speech In Syria Includes Familiar Rhetoric


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has delivered a rare national address to his people, his first since early June. He appeared defiant in the face of the uprising that has raged for two years. The U.N. now says 60,000 people have died in Syria since a protest movement was met with a bloody crackdown that exploded into a civil war.

NPR's Kelly McEvers joins us from Antakya, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Kelly, there have been rumors about this speech for days. What were the expectations?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: People were calling this the Solution Speech, saying it was going to be his response to the whirlwind of diplomatic activity in recent weeks. That diplomatic activity was an effort to really broker some kind of peace plan. It was led by a United Nations Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. He was in Damascus, Syria's capital. He spent time in Russia. He was in Cairo with the Syrian opposition, trying to come up with some kind of an agreement.

And there was a sense that Assad was going to give, even if just a tiny, little bit - a few inches - that he would agree to some kind of cease-fire, that he might call for a dialogue for those who oppose him. But basically, none of that happened in this speech.

MARTIN: OK, so what did he say?

MCEVERS: He said the same thing he's been saying for nearly two years now. He said that the Syrian regime is not facing a revolution. This is not a legitimate opposition with legitimate demands. Instead, it's fighting terrorists, jihadists, al-Qaida, people who are funded from outside countries.

And take a listen to this.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Through Translator) The conflict is between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the criminal killers.

MCEVERS: That's President Assad speaking through an interpreter. And again, just blaming the terrorists for all the violence in the country; taking no responsibility himself, saying the only way to deal with such people is a security solution.

At one point in the speech, he did put forward a list of purposed, you know, sort of political reforms. But on it, you know, changing the constitution and national dialogue. But honestly, we've seen these before - many times before, and little has changed on the ground.

MARTIN: So, if this was a retread, what was he trying to accomplish? Who was he trying to reach with this address?

MCEVERS: It's clear that he was rallying support inside the country and with the few allies that he still has in the world - you know, Iran, Russia, China to some degree - to show that he's still strong. I mean, this speech was delivered in an opera house in Syria's capital, packed with people who would leap to their feet and pump their fists, and shouted his name whenever he talked about defending the country. So this speech was for them, to reassure them that he's still strong.

You know, there was one moment though, one possible glimmer of hope for those who oppose Assad. He did say right at the end of the speech - a quick line - something akin to, you know: Positions don't last forever - meaning, like the position of the president - Syria will last forever. I will go one day, but the country stays.

MARTIN: Kelly, there's obviously still a war going on in Syria. Does the Syrian military have an advantage right now?

MCEVERS: It's really hard to say. I mean I think most people would call it a stalemate. You've got a lot of fighting going on in the capital, Damascus, in a lot of these suburban areas where rebels do control these areas. The army is pounding these areas. I think people saw that the rebels had some momentum maybe a month ago. I don't know if they have that momentum any more.

MARTIN: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Antakya, Turkey near the Syrian border. Thanks so much, Kelly.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.