Further bloodshed in Syria looks certain now that President Bashar al-Assad has decided to play it tough.

In his long-awaited TV address to the nation last night, Assad was expected to end Syria’s 48-year-old state of emergency and announce concessions to buy off protesters. But the man whom Hilary Clinton has praised as “a reformer”, offered nothing.

Instead, he made vague promises of change and blamed the unrest — which has seen up to 130 people killed in protests across the country — on “foreign enemies” and “plots”.

Assad was heckled by adoring parliamentarians as he made his speech and lauded as he left the building — although one woman did try to approach his car.

But there were reports of gunfire on the streets of Latakia — where several demonstrators were killed on Saturday — and Syrian Revolution 2011 used its Facebook site to call for immediate protest, urging people to “Go down into the streets now and announce the uprising”.

Any clashes are most likely to occur after Friday prayers, but Syria’s security forces are already well prepared. As President Assad was slamming the door on reform, an Al Jazeera TV crew was trying to get into Daraa, where the troubles began two weeks ago. They were turned back by soldiers manning two heavy machine guns, trained on the main road.  According to reporter Cal Perry, the troops at the checkpoint had “impressive firepower” and had just set up their positions.

At that point the streets were still deserted, because everyone was glued to the television. But Assad’s speech seems certain to spark more protests.

Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, described the president’s effort as “extremely disappointing”. And even the US State Department said it “fell short”. Spokesman Mark Toner told AFP: “It’s clear to us that it didn’t have much substance to it,” adding that the Syrian people might be disappointed.

That may be putting it mildly, to judge by posts on Syria Comment, the blog run by the University of Oklahoma’s Syria expert, Joshua Landis.

“The regime just committed suicide by a thousand cuts,” says one Syrian expatriate. “Somebody has decided that either all Syrians are dumb and we can continue to trick them forever or that civil war is much better than giving the people more power.”

“Horrible. He looked very weak and distraught,” says another. “He basically paved the road for more bloodshed. And I was foolish enough to have some hopes.”

“Bashar is incapable of reform. He is inexperienced and weak,” says a third. “Today, he decided to go along with the gang in his immediate family. He’ll survive this round. He is ready to order the tanks to crush the people … What happens in a year, two, or three is anyone’s guess.”

But Assad may have one thing going for him: that Syria’s middle classes fear the uprisings as much as he does. Crikey’s unofficial correspondent in Damascus tells me that all the protests he has seen so far have been pro-government:

“The problems in Daraa are being blamed on Islamists, which is getting a lot of people scared — so they’re coming out to show their support. It’s amazing what people are willing to overlook here, but understandable I guess. They’re all heading off to some gathering now, cars with flags and groups strolling with flags. There’s endless horn honking, people hanging out the windows, chanting and general enthusiasm. At first I thought they were stooges but now half the world has a flag and is chanting ‘with our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you Bashar’ and ‘God, freedom, Bashar and nothing else’. I think people are just trying to make it clear they don’t want any trouble. Most people would rather the devil they know, and Bashar seems very popular even if much of his government isn’t.

“Damascus seems pretty safe and quiet at the moment,” he continued, “although I’ve heard that some people have been killed in the suburbs. Military helicopters have been flying low over the city today and yesterday [Monday/Tuesday] right over us on the terrace.”

Meanwhile, DFAT again has warned Australians of the “risk of violent protests, high threat of terrorist attack and unpredictable security environment” and advised people to reconsider any plans they may have to visit the country.

Peter Fray

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