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Syrian President Puts Himself At Center Of Road Map For Reforms

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "A defining moment"

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "A defining moment"

Embattled President Bashar al-Assad today announced a road map for the future of Syria -- outlining steps toward revising or rewriting the country's constitution and announcing the formation of a "national dialogue" committee that would lead to the drafting of a new election law.

In his third public speech since a popular uprising against his regime began in March, Assad today called the situation in Syria "a defining moment" in the history of the country, saying "the only option is to look forward toward the future."

Assad said steps toward reforms would be discussed in a "national dialogue where all take part," and that the process had already begun through the formation of a National Dialogue Authority representing all elements within Syrian society.

Specifying that he is part of the National Dialogue Authority, Assad stressed that the group "will not take part in the dialogue" but "will preside over the dialogue and set time limits" for reaching reform goals. He said the new National Dialogue Authority has decided to hold "a consultative meeting in the next few days" and would "invite more than 100 personalities to discuss with them the criteria and mechanisms."

Assad said "dialogue would begin immediately" after those consultations. He said he himself, on the basis of the national dialogue, would hand down resolutions for proposed reforms that would be ratified by Syria's parliament within one or two months. He said decisions also would be made to either amend or rewrite Syria's Constitution.

Political analysts are questioning whether Assad's speech offered too little and came too late for demonstrators who have faced a deadly crackdown at the hands of Syria's Army and paramilitary fighters from Assad's minority Alawite religious faction.

Defying Key Demand

Assad today defied the key demand of demonstrators who have taken to the streets across the country -- that is, his immediate resignation. Protesters also are demanding an end to killings and the use of torture by the state against opponents of Assad's regime and the lifting of restrictions on the freedom of the press.

Demonstrators also have been demanding the release of political prisoners, free and fair elections and an independent investigation into killings and other abuses by security forces during the three-month uprising.

Assad today said he would ask the Justice Ministry to carry out a study about expanding an amnesty to include all except drug dealers and those charged with attempting to violently overthrow the government.

He said the completion of new laws on political parties and elections were the most important legislation on political reforms. He said parliamentary elections would be held in August unless they are postponed. He said that with a new parliament in place in August, the package of political reforms could be completed in September.

Assad described the violence that has gripped Syria in the last three months as a "cloud which left behind acts of vandalism, murder, and the destruction of private and public property amid public demonstrations."

He said there are three components to the demonstrations taking place on the streets across Syria. He described one element as legitimate voices of people seeking demands from the government." He said the government should "listen, cooperate, and lend them a helping hand."

But he said there also are some 64,000 "outlaws wanted for criminal offenses" who are trying to take advantage of the street demonstrations and are now trying to sabotage the country.

'Radical And Blasphemous'

He said a third component of the demonstrations across Syria are "radical and blasphemous intellectuals who are trying to infiltrate Syria" -- including Syrians who are being paid by "foreign elements" to film and take part in antigovernment demonstrations.

He said the country must differentiate between Syrians with legitimate needs and those who are fomenting violence, people he described as conspirators producing "germs everywhere that cannot be eradicated yet."

Rights groups and opposition activists estimate more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad's forces have tried to preserve his grip on power. Nearly 11,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Turkey.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad used the speech to “blam(e) foreign instigators rather than appreciating that his own people are simply disgusted by a regime that supports itself through repression, corruption, and fear."

She called the state’s brutality toward Syrians “repulsive” and added that the vast majority of those "innocents" killed in Syria were killed at the hands of security forces.

"What we need now in Syria is action, not words," she said

Ahead of Assad's speech today, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the regime in Syria is losing its legitimacy and that Turkey should join with countries that are pressuring Assad to "either reform or step aside."

"I hope our Turkish colleagues will bring every possible pressure to bear on the Assad regime with a very clear message that they are losing legitimacy and that Assad should reform or step aside," Hague said. "And I hope they will be very clear and very bold about that."

Hague also called on Assad to heed the calls in a proposed UN Security Council resolution drafted by Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal that calls for the release of "prisoners of conscience," the opening of access to the Internet and free media, and cooperation with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said today that Moscow is ready to use its veto on the UN Security Council to block the draft resolution, claiming it could be used as cover for military action against Syria.

But Medvedev said other calls and declarations, "including from the UN Security Council towards Syria, are possible."

compiled from agency reports