Syrians brush off Assad speech

Fighting resumed in Damascus despite President Bashar al-Assad's speech calling for peace.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - Syrians said on Monday they expected only war after a speech by President Bashar al-Assad that was billed as a peace plan, and fighting resumed in the capital just a few miles from where he spoke.

Hours after Assad addressed cheering loyalists at the Damascus Opera House on Sunday, clashes raged just a few miles away near the road to the city's international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The opposition-linked group said artillery hit the district of Arqaba, 5km from the Opera House. Fighting continued all night and into Monday around the capital, as well as in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, it said.

Damascus residents said the speech was met with celebratory gunfire in pro-Assad neighbourhoods. But even there, some saw no sign peace was any closer, although the cabinet was due to begin implementing the plan to "solve the crisis in Syria".

A loyalist resident of southern Damascus who gave only her first name, Aliaa, said the speech was eloquent but empty. "It sounded more like gloating than making promises," she said.

"I agree with the ideas but words are really just words until he takes some action. He needs to do something. But even so, everything he suggests now, it is too late, the rebels aren't going to stop."

In the once-affluent district of Mezzeh, scene of several bomb attacks, an Assad critic said people had more pressing concerns. "Here, no one cares about this speech. They care about food and electricity."

Another said few people had watched the speech and that Assad's crackdown would not stop. "Military operations will continue in full swing, and he is staying."

France joined the United States in saying Assad's speech, his first to an audience since June in 2012, showed he had lost touch with reality after 21 months of conflict in which the United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed.

The plan he described as a new peace initiative offered no concessions, and Assad disparaged the prospect of talks with an opposition he branded puppets of the West.

Instead, he summoned Syrians to mobilise for a "war to defend the state". He proposed an army cease fire, but only after rebels halt their operations.


Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halki called on Monday for a special cabinet meeting to implement the "national programme announced by President Bashar al-Assad yesterday to solve the crisis in Syria", the state news agency SANA said.

George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National Coalition, said the putative peace plan "did not even deserve to be called an initiative".

"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people," he told Reuters.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the speech "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power".

"His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the efforts of (U.N. peace envoy) Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people."

Assad's main ally Iran defended the speech as offering a "comprehensive political process". "This plan rejects violence and terrorism and any foreign interference," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement.

There was no immediate response from Moscow, which has acted as Assad's main protector on the diplomatic stage. Sunday and Monday were part of the orthodox Christmas holiday when Russian state offices are mainly quiet.

Syrian state television showed footage of convoys of cars driving through main streets in Damascus. People waving the Syrian flag leaned out of the car windows and some braved the cold and rain to walk alongside the convoy.

"It was a victorious speech that respects the martyred Syrian soldiers," said a man on state TV, adding that a camouflaged vest he was wearing was that of his brother, who was killed fighting the opposition.

After six months of advances, rebels now control wide swathes of northern and eastern Syria, most of its border crossings with Turkey and a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts of Damascus.

But Assad's government is still entrenched in the capital and controls most of the densely-populated southwest, the Mediterranean coast, the main north-south highway and military bases countrywide. Its helicopters and jets are able to strike rebel-held areas with impunity.

A video posted by Islamist rebels on the internet on Monday showed a huge explosion at walled a compound of concrete buildings, filmed from a distance. The Observatory's head, Rami Abdelrahman, said the film showed a car bomb attack in central Hama province two months ago that killed dozens of soldiers.

Israel has also been watching warily from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 war and which, prior to the anti-Assad insurgency, had been mostly quiet for decades.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday Israel would erect a fence along the Golan armistice line to keep out jihadist rebels who, he said, had dislodged Assad's troops on the Syrian side. Much of the Golan is already fenced, and Israel has been reinforcing the fence for months after pro-Palestinian demonstrators twice tried to storm across in 2011.