Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pledged on Monday political reforms within months to address a wave of protests against his rule, but blamed saboteurs for the unrest and warned that no deal could be reached with gunmen.
Assad said a national dialogue would start soon to review new legislation including laws on parliamentary elections, the media, and political parties and look at possible changes to the constitution.
But activists dismissed Assad’s promises, saying they failed to engage the demands of protesters who for three months have defied a fierce military crackdown in calling for greater freedom, posing the gravest challenge to his 11-year leadership.
After his speech, delivered at Damascus University, protesters took to the streets of the capital’s suburbs and in the coastal city of Latakia, activists and residents said.
“The regime has no realization that this is a mass street movement demanding freedom and dignity,” opposition figure Walid al-Bunni said. “Assad has not said anything to satisfy the families of the 1,400 martyrs or the national aspiration of the Syrian people for the country to become a democracy.”
In just his third speech since unrest began in March, Assad appeared tense as he pledged to pursue a national dialogue on reforms and held out the prospect of expanding a recent amnesty.
But he said: “We have to distinguish between (those who have legitimate demands) and saboteurs. The saboteurs are a small group that tried to exploit the kind majority of the Syrian people to carry out their many schemes.”
No political solution was possible with people carrying weapons, he said.
As Syrian forces swept through the northwestern border region with Turkey, blocking refugees fleeing the military crackdown, Assad called on the 10,000 who have already crossed the frontier to come home.
“There are those who give them the impression that the state will exact revenge. I affirm that is not true. The army is there for security,” he said in the speech.
A committee on national dialogue is to invite more than 100 personalities in the next few days to discuss framework and mechanism of the dialogue.
Assad said he hoped the package of reforms should be ready by September if parliamentary elections went ahead as scheduled in two months’ time, which will be decided during the dialogue.
“The parliamentary elections, if they are not postponed, will be held in August. We will have a new parliament by … August and I think we can say that we are able to accomplish this package (of reforms) … in September,” he said.
The violence so close to its border has challenged Turkey’s foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” under which it has befriended the Middle East’s autocratic rulers while presenting itself as a champion of democracy.
A senior Turkish official said on Sunday that Assad has less than a week to start implementing long-promised political reforms before foreign intervention begins.
Faced with troops firing live ammunition, Syrian protesters have taken to venting their anger against Assad at night.
Demonstrations erupted overnight in the cities of Hama, Homs, Latakia, Deir al-Zor, the town of Madaya near the Lebanese border, several suburbs of the capital Damascus and in Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, witnesses and activists said.
Authorities blame the violence on armed groups and Islamists, backed by foreign powers. Syria has barred most international journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
Syrian rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed and 10,000 people detained since March.
The Syrian Observatory for human rights has said more than 300 soldiers and police have also been killed. Other rights campaigners said dozens of security personnel had been killed by loyalist troops for refusing to shoot at unarmed civilians.
Even so, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev practically ruled out supporting a U.N. resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
In an interview published in the Financial Times on Monday, Medvedev criticised the way Western countries had interpreted U.N. Resolution 1973 on Libya which he said turned it into “a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation.”
“I would not like a Syrian resolution to be pulled off in a similar manner,” he added.