President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has delivered an uncompromising rebuff to demonstrations against his rule by blaming "conspirators" and declining to announce widely anticipated key concessions to opponents.
In a keenly awaited speech to the Syrian parliament in Damascus, he instead pledged to defeat those he claimed were involved in a "plot" against his country, among whom he included foreign satellite-television channels.
"Maintaining [Syria's central] role [in the region] will encourage our enemies to undermine it. I always warn against success because success leads to a [false] sense of security. I say that in the battle you know your enemy and his plan but after the battle you don't know what he is preparing," Assad said.
"Therefore, after every success we have to work harder to maintain our success and protect ourselves from conspiracies that could come from the outside. It is clear that Syria now faces a big conspiracy. The conspiracy is linked to close and distant countries, and it has some internal links."
Assad was making his first public comments since a wave of unprecedented protests against his rule in southern towns and cities, including Daraa and Syria's main port, Latakia. Scores have been killed by security forces who fired on demonstrators.
Assad said security forces were given orders not to harm citizens during the protests, "but when events happen in the streets and the dialogue takes place in the streets instead of legal institutions, that leads to chaos in which the [protesters'] reaction will prevail and the wrong view will become dominant and there will be bloodshed, and this is what happened and you all know it."
In what was assumed to presage the unveiling of significant reforms, he had accepted the resignation of his cabinet a day earlier ahead of the formation of a new government.
That was expected to pave the way for the announcement of liberalizing measures, including the repeal of a nearly 50-year-old wide-ranging emergency law.'A Big Plot From Outside'
But Assad made only vague reference to such reforms in an unusually short speech that was frequently interrupted by parliament deputies offering him paeans of praise. He said he believed in reform but that his regime would not make changes under pressure.
"We are all for reform. That is the duty of the state. But we are not for strife," said the Syrian leader. "What we should watch out for is starting reforms under these circumstances right now, this passing wave."
Instead of appeasing his critics, the president -- in power since 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for the previous 30 years -- blamed outsiders for the recent demonstrations.
"Syria is a target of a big plot from outside -- its timing, its format has been speeded up," he said.
Referring to the wave of Arab protests that have unseated presidents in Egypt and Tunisia, triggered intense fighting in Libya, and provoked uprisings elsewhere, he added: "This conspiracy is different in shape and timing from what is going on in the Arab world. Syria is not isolated from the region...but we are not a copy of other countries."
Syria, an ally of Iran, has long had hostile relations with the United States and Israel and is widely thought to be one of the Middle East's most ruthless police states.No Change To Emergency Law
Assad's address was greeted by enthusiastic applause by watching lawmakers, who lined up afterward to shake his hand.
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma in the United States, tells RFE/RL that the speech was meant to suggest that if the protesters are allowed to prevail, dire consequences would follow.
"Assad presented a very stark picture of the world: an 'us against them picture,' a picture of Syria with only one choice -- and that is a choice between stability and safety and civil war and becoming like Iraq, and allowing the integrity of the nation to crumble and having foreign powers manipulating [and] dividing Syria," Landis says.
Landis says many of the "outsiders" who have played a role in the recent protests are Syrian expatriates who are now reaching citizens inside the country in ways that, for Syria, "are revolutionary: through Facebook, through Twitter, through YouTube, and through Al-Jazeera."
The lack of specifics in Assad's speech with respect to reforms means it is likely to be met with disappointment among a wider audience within Syria, which is riven by potential sectarian differences between the majority Sunni community and minorities like the Allawites -- a Shi'a-related sect to which the president belongs -- and Christians.
The emergency law, in force since 1963, denies citizens guaranteed rights and allows for detention without charge.
After Assad’s speech, hundreds of protesters chanting "Freedom" marched in Latakia, where residents said security forces had fired into the air. There were also unconfirmed reports of protests in Daraa.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Assad's speech wasn't a meaningful response to the people's call for reform:
"Ultimately it's going to be the Syrian people, obviously, who are the ones to judge what they heard today and whether or not President Assad demonstrated positive movement forward in meeting their aspirations and in hearing their call for political and economic and social reform," Toner said.
"But we expect they're going to be disappointed. We feel the speech fell short with respect to the kinds of reforms that the Syrian people demanded."
Toner added that "it's far too easy to look for conspiracy theories [than to] respond in a meaningful way to the call for reform."
Assad conceded that a draft bill on lifting the emergency law and liberalizing laws on the media and political parties was taking too long.
But he added: "The emergency law and political parties law have been under study for a year...but giving a time frame is a logistic matter. When we announce it in such circumstances, it is difficult to make that deadline."
After Assad spoke, protesters began using social-networking sites to spread word of a demonstration planned for April 1 that they are calling "Friday of Martyrs."
It remains to be seen how large the protests will be after security forces' violent crackdown on previous demonstrations and the government's strategy of calling its own mass pro-Assad rallies.
with agency reports