Middle East

Syria: Damascus reaction to Assad speech

Syrian citizens watch President Assad's speech in a Damascus cafe, 20 June
Image caption It was President Assad's third speech since the unrest began in March

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad say his speech was encouraging and responsive to people's demands, but his opponents say they have heard it all before and that the only solution they will accept is the fall of the regime.

"We were not expecting something huge from the regime because we have seen their actions and know how they are dealing with peaceful protesters," Adel Othman, the Damascus spokesperson of the protest co-ordinating committees, told the BBC.

"They put the security solution as the only [priority]. As for promises of reform, we are used to it… What we want now is not reform, but to topple the regime and change it," says Mr Othman.

Protesters in the street have also been calling for an end to the violence and killing.

'Murderers'

Human rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers have been killed since the protests started in mid-March. Another 10,000 people have been detained.

The regime claims that armed gangs are trying to hijack protesters' legitimate demands by using violence against civilians, the army and security forces.

But the protesters insist they are peaceful.

"The problem is in the regime," says Mr Othman. "What was offered doesn't match the ambition of the street, so as local co-ordination committees, we refuse these offers."

He called for security forces to be held accountable for their actions - noting that Mr Assad made no mention of this key demand in his address.

"These reform promises are just to deceive Syrians, and intended for world consumption," he added.

Soon after the speech, protesters are reported to have taken to the streets in several cities including Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.

"No to dialogue with murderers," protesters were heard chanting in the Damascus suburb of Irbin, when reached by telephone by the Reuters news agency.

Text message

At the same time, rival rallies in support of the Syrian president were also reported at Damascus University and the nearby al-Umawiyeen Square.

A few hours after the speech, a text message was sent out on mobile networks, calling on government loyalists to rally at Umayyad Square in central Damascus on Tuesday to show their support for President Assad.

Rateb Shallah, head of the Syrian Chambers of Commerce Federation, was at the speech on Monday and expressed confidence in the president's promised reforms.

"I hope it will be a turning point in solving the crisis and that it will meet the demands of the Syrian people," he said.

But several of the youth protesters who watched the address on TV said they were disappointed.

"Next Friday will not be peaceful and the days to come will be difficult," said one, speaking in Damascus on condition of anonymity.

'Nothing new'

According to Louai Hussein, another opposition activist, the speech was addressed to the president's loyalists, not his opponents.

"Nothing new was said," says Mr Hussein, who is part of an opposition committee that published a roadmap for political reform a few days ago.

The roadmap outlines the steps needed to address the current crisis, but its main aim is to end the violence and killing.

"What was mentioned was very important, but it doesn't solve the problem with the protesters. There is a need for real freedom so that change can start," he added.

In his speech, delivered at Damascus University, Mr Assad stressed that the priority is for people to be engaged in the political process, and to contribute to decision making about political reform.

The fact that the president addressed youth at the university may be seen as an acknowledgement that parliament does not represent the people and that there is a pressing need for free elections.

The majority of protesters and opposition supporters believe that a political solution is the way forward, but for that to happen, there must be an immediate end to the repression and killing, they say.