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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Amid Crackdown, Syria’s Foreign Minister Promises ‘Example Of Democracy’

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem speaks during a news conference in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, June 22, 2011. (AP)

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem speaks during a news conference in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, June 22, 2011. (AP)

Here & Now Guest:

  • BBC reporter Sue Lloyd-Roberts, from Damascus


BEIRUT – Syria’s foreign minister vowed Wednesday to present “an unprecedented example of democracy” in the country within three months, an extraordinary promise in a nation facing an uprising against an authoritarian system in place for decades.

Speaking during a televised news conference, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem’s comments were the latest attempt by the regime to blunt three months of widespread street protests against President Bashar Assad’s autocratic rule.

“We will offer an example of democracy,” Moallem said, when asked about his vision for Syria in three months. “There will be social justice, equality before the law and accountability.” His statements went beyond the vague promises of reform made by Assad in a nationally televised speech on Monday.

The news conference appeared designed to portray regime confidence and to cast doubt on the opposition at a time when Assad is coming under increased attack at home and abroad.

Moallem lashed out at the government’s critics, particularly Europe, which imposed sanctions on Assad and members of the leadership over its deadly crackdown on protesters.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Damascus unleashed military and other security forces to crush the protest movement, which sprang to life in March inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The U.S. also has imposed sanctions, but the European move was a personal blow to Assad, who studied in Britain and made a high priority of efforts to bring Syria back into the global mainstream.

“We will forget that Europe is on the map and we will look east, south and toward every hand that is extended to us,” Moallem said. “The world is not just made up of Europe.”

He also denied that Syrian allies Iran and Hezbollah are helping the regime put down unrest. The U.S. has accused Iran of sending reinforcements and equipment to Syria.

“There is Iranian and Hezbollah political support for Syria to transcend this crisis and support for the reforms announced by President Bashar Assad,” he said. “But there is absolutely no military support on the ground.”
Assad has appeared in public just three times since the uprising began, most recently on Monday when he made general promises of reform that failed to satisfy the opposition, which at this point says it will accept nothing less than the downfall of the Assad family regime, in power for 40 years.

In that speech at Damascus University, the president said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but he alleged once more than “saboteurs” were exploiting the movement. Opposition spokesmen dismissed the speech as too little, too late.

On Tuesday, the regime mobilized tens of thousands of its supporters, who converged on squares in several major cities. “The people want Bashar Assad!” some shouted, releasing black, white and red balloons – colors of the Syrian flag.

They soon clashed with opposition supporters, drawing in security forces. At least seven people were killed, activists said.

Although activists accused the regime of organizing the rallies and forcing people to attend, the fact that tens of thousands of people were on the streets was a reminder that Assad still enjoys support, although it is dwindling.

His main base is among the business elite and middle classes who have benefited from his economic policies, and among minority groups that fear being targeted if the Sunni Muslim majority takes over, replacing leadership drawn from Syria’s minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Although the regime blames the unrest on foreign conspirators, the opposition insists there’s no foreign involvement, and the scattered nature of the protests appears to indicate broad grassroots support and little central planning.

The unrest has sent thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring Turkey. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that 500 to 1,000 people a day have been crossing from northern Syria into Turkey since June 7, and more than 10,000 were being sheltered by Turkish authorities in four border camps.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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