Syria's president Bashar al-Assad blamed unrest in his country on an American-Israeli plot in his first public comments since his cabinet resigned Tuesday in an apparent response to calls for reform.
Meanwhile, despite speculation he would ease the grip on public life exercised by his authoritarian regime after protests across the Arab world and at home, Assad did not mention lifting a state of emergency in place since 1963.
"There is a plot to break Syria apart," Assad said in his brief speech to parliament Wednesday, The Jerusalem Post reported. "It began with incitement on the internet and on Facebook, and moved on to the media and the street. We were able to stop the American-Israeli plot."
Assad, who has ruled Syria since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, was referring to pro-democracy unrest that has posed the gravest challenge to the Baath Party he leads. More than 60 people have been killed during protests for greater freedoms that erupted in Syria nearly two weeks ago, according to Reuters.
His appearance had been seen as an attempt to calm tensions after government forces repeatedly opened fire on demonstrators, killing dozens of people last Wednesday. Assad had been expected to announce constitutional amendments and sweeping reforms, including an end to the state of emergency laws that enable police to arrest people without charge.
The resignation of the government alone was unlikely to satisfy protesters, according to Syria watchers, as the cabinet has little authority in Syria and power is concentrated in the hands of Assad, his family and the security apparatus.
Assad acknowledged in his speech that "Syrian people have demands that have not been met," but said that the demands of his opposition were "used as a cover to dupe the people to go to the streets."
"Our enemies act every day in an organized and public matter in order to harm Syria," he continued, adding that “the plots that are being hatched against our country” represented a “test of our unity.”
He said the protesters were "smart in their timing, but stupid by choosing a country that will not be defeated by any step."
Assad insisted that his government would not be pressured into what he described as premature change, according to the New York Times.
“We are for reform and we are for meeting the people’s demands,” he reportedly said, referring — according to the Times — to legislative changes under consideration since 2005 but not implemented because of what he called a series of regional crises. “The first priority was to the stability of Syria, to maintain stability,” he said.
— Freya Petersen