DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria’s president dashed expectations that he would announce sweeping reforms Wednesday and instead took a tough line, blaming two weeks of popular fury on a foreign conspiracy.
Bashar Assad’s own officials billed his speech as an introduction of major change, and the turnaround infuriated protesters who vowed to keep up with their extraordinary cries for reform.
The conflicting messages also raised questions about a possible rift in one of the Middle East’s most rigid regimes, where Assad and a tight coterie of family and security services hold all the power.
“Syria is being subjected to a major conspiracy,” Assad said in his first public comments since the turmoil began, touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall. Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed since March 18 as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.
Assad made only a passing reference to the protesters’ calls for change, saying he was in favor of reform, but acknowledged there have been delays. “The question is what reforms do we need,” he said, without offering any specifics.
Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said Assad missed an opportunity to distinguish himself from other dictators in the region who refuse to bow to public demands.
“I think Assad opted not to announce the reform measures in his speech today because he doesn’t want to be seen as having succumbed to street pressure,” Ziadeh said.
Social networking sites immediately exploded with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets.
Within hours of Assad’s speech, residents of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters.
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