Five years into Syria’s civil war, embattled President Bashar al-Assad has kept up a defiant, uncompromising tone, through a conflict that has engulfed the country into a spiral of death, displacement and chaos.
When the first wave of protests began in Syria back in March 2011, demonstrations were met with live fire from security forces, which killed over 100. For two weeks, Assad was silent.
Then, in an address delivered to parliament on March 30, 2011 that was at times light-hearted in tone, Assad blamed “conspirators” with an “Israeli agenda,” adding that “there is chaos in the country under the pretext of reform.”
The Syrian president, who had taken power a decade ago soon after his father President Hafez al-Assad died, then suggested that his government would start implementing reforms.
Shortly after the speech aired, one Syrian in the capital Damascus told The Guardian at the time: “This is the end of Syria… there was no apology and no promise of reform. This only makes us angrier. He could have at least apologized for the deaths.”
Two weeks later, Assad made another address, saying he would lift the unpopular state of emergency laws that had been in place for 50 years and push in reforms. He then warned that there would no longer be “an excuse” after the reforms had passed.
“After that, we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage,” he said.
An analysis (PDF) of Assad’s speeches published in 2014 purported that the conflict brought about a change to the president’s tone. In more peaceful years, Syria’s ruling party Baath party’s important narrative” had been “resistance against Israel and Western Domination.” However, that narrative “all but vanishes once the rebellion begins in 2011.”
The protests, which had by now spread across the country, continued, amid the violent crackdown by Assad’s security forces. By the end of May 2011, 1,000 civilians were estimated to have been killed.
In another address on June 20, 2011 Assad made another speech.
“There are those who are killing in the name of the religion and want to spread chaos under the pretext of religion,” he said, adding that “the state is like a mother or father ...When a state affords clemency to those who erred it means it acts in a very responsible way.”
The BBC noted at the time that Assad’s remarks were “essentially an update on his second address.”
In late July, a group of defecting officers from Assad’s army announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, the first formal rebel movement.
In August 2011, US President Barack Obama called on Assad to step down, followed by several other powers.
A speech the same by Assad saw the president “point[ing] out that the conspiracy was carefully plotted to fragment Syria… but the people who concocted the conspiracy forgot that Syria has unique characteristics that make it immune to conspiracies,” according to the text on a loyalist website.
However, as the conflict stretched into its second year, the expectations proved badly wrong.
“In the past, people used to say he was out of touch with reality,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Apparently we were out of touch with reality.”
In June 2012 address, Assad vowed to crush the uprising, and blamed “terrorists” and “criminal killers” for continuing the conflict.
“The masks have fallen and the international role in the Syrian events is now obvious,” he said.
In the same month, he referred to his country as “witnessing a real state of war.”
In 2013, at a banquet of scholars and society figures, Assad seemed to strike a reconciliatory note.
“We will pursue tolerance with those misled, not those whose perpetrated bloodsheds, in parallel with striking at terrorists,” the president said. He also claimed that his regime had been flexible with plans for the upcoming Geneva II peace conference.
“We have been flexible not out of naivety, but because we do believe in political work,” he said. The peace conference in Geneva ground to a halt in early 2014, the-then chief UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi claimed that the regime had been stubborn.
No more reform
“In the beginning he used to talk about reform, he used to talk about a foreign conspiracy, and now he is talking about staying in power,” said Khashan.
In July 2014, at a speech delivered after being sworn in for a new seven-year term as president, Assad slammed the 2011 Arab Spring as a “fake spring.”
In mid-2015, the Syrian regime seemed to be losing its grip, amid gains by ISIS and other rebel groups. In a July speech, Assad said that his army was “capable” after years of war, but was facing a “shortfall in human capacity.”
He added that “We are not collapsing… we are steadfast and will achieve victory. Defeat does not exist in the dictionary of the Syrian Arab army.”
In late September 2015, Russia responded to Assad’s request for assistance, and began to undertake air-strikes on militant groups in a bid to prop up the regime.
In late February this year, a UN-backed ceasefire between the regime and many rebel groups took effect.
Western powers are optimistic for a fresh round of peace talks, while the Syrian government refuses any discusses on removing Assad during a widely-discussed political transition.
Khashan, the academic, said that Assad may have become bolder since the Russian intervention.
“The broader contours of Assad’s rhetoric have not changed,” he said. “He’s still adamant and defiant… There has been no need for him to change his tone. If anything, he’s increasingly showing signs of confidence.”SHOW MORE