(Updates with U.K. comment in fifth paragraph, protests in sixth, Israeli comment in seventh, eighth.)
June 20 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called for a national dialogue that may lead to constitutional amendments as he blamed the ongoing unrest in the country on a foreign conspiracy.
“National dialogue has become the title of the current phase,” Assad said today in a speech carried live on state television from Damascus, the capital. “The conspiracy was designed abroad and perpetrated within our country.”
Protests against Assad’s 11-year rule began in mid-March as part of a wave of unrest across the Middle East and North Africa this year that has unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment for injuries sustained during an attack that followed months of anti-government rallies.
“This speech won’t take people off the streets,” Theodore Karasik, an analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in response to e-mailed questions. “Nothing new is being offered except for more rhetoric promising change that never materializes.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote on his Twitter Inc. feed that Assad’s speech was “disappointing and unconvincing” and that there was “little new on how reforms will be implemented and when, or how he will end violence.”
Speech Prompts Protests
Demonstrations erupted across Syria as protesters expressed disappointment with Assad’s speech, saying it didn’t meet their demands for political change, Al Jazeera television reported. Rallies were held in the suburbs of Damascus and in the cities of Homs, Hama, Latakia, Albu Kamal and Daraa, as well as in towns near Daraa, where the protests began, the network said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Assad may be forced out within six months, the Associated Press reported.
Assad “ended up using too much brutal force, too many graves have been dug and he lost practically his legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people,” Barak told the AP today. “He probably will stay around for another quarter or two but that will not change his fate.”
Assad’s speech was his third since the Syrian unrest started. In April, he said the lack of a connection between the government and its people had created popular anger. A month earlier, he said there will be a new parliament and local administrations after elections scheduled for August.
There is “complete and absolute conviction in the process of reform because it represents the interest of the homeland,” Assad said today. “The problem is which reform we want and what are the details.”
He said the demands of Syrians he has met with “are with merit,” citing examples of calls for justice, jobs, security and greater democracy. “We have started to resolve these issues,” Assad said.
The protests are the biggest challenge to the Assad family since 1982. That year, Assad’s father and predecessor, President Hafez al-Assad, used the army to crush an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood movement and focused on the city of Hama. Thousands of people were killed. The Assads are from the Alawite minority in the Sunni Muslim-majority country of more than 21 million people.
Syrians need “to answer ourselves first if we want to amend some articles in the constitution or to change the constitution,” Assad said. He also said a national dialogue may delay the August elections.
“This dialogue is very important,” Assad said. “We have to give it a chance because the whole future of Syria, if we want it to succeed, must be built on this dialogue.”
Assad created a committee that is to prepare the ground for the national dialogue, the state-run television reported June 1. He also issued a decree in April approving a new government. It is led by former Agriculture Minister Adel Safar.
A total of 1,289 civilians and 332 members of the security forces have been killed since Assad’s regime cracked down on dissent, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said June 12.
The protests have been marked by “vandalism, murder and the destruction of private property,” and the demonstrators are being paid, Assad said.
Syrians have been crossing the border into Turkey since June 8 to escape the violence. The number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey amid the unrest increased to 10,639, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported today.
Syrian refugees in Turkey should return home, Assad said. “We hope that the army can return to its barracks as soon as possible,” he said.
Syrian forces were deployed in the north around Ma’arrat an Nu’man on June 17 after the army swept through the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour earlier this month. The deployment was “to prevent terrorists” from cutting off the highway that links Damascus to Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo, state television reported.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the Syrian opposition today to commit to negotiations with Assad and avoid “provocations” that may destabilize the country, according to comments televised on Russian state channel Rossiya 24.
The economy is being affected by the unrest and “confidence” must be restored, Assad aid. “The worst we could face is a weakened or collapsed Syrian economy,” he said.
The economy may expand as much as 2.5 percent this year, Finance Minister Mohammad Jleilati said June 9.
The Obama administration is considering additional economic sanctions on Syria involving oil and gas, U.S. officials said on June 17. The U.S. is also examining whether there are grounds for seeking war-crimes charges stemming from the Syrian government’s crackdown on civilians.
A day earlier, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Brasilia that Assad should “stop killing people” in protests in his country and called the attacks “totally unacceptable.”
--With assistance from Lina Ibrahim in Damascus, Mariam Fam in Cairo, and Henry Meyer in Moscow. Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Heather Langan, Andrew J. Barden, Digby Lidstone
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