Syrian president promises new laws, alleges a "conspiracy"
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing nationwide protests against his 11-year rule, promised that a new constitution and package of reforms would be presented soon, calling the uprising a "conspiracy" and the work of "foreign agendas."
"There exists a conspiracy," he said in a live televised speech, adding that Syria needs to cement its immunity against ongoing rumours directed at the country, DPA reported.
"Rumours are not important to me," said al-Assad, then asserting that all rumours heard about himself, his family and his work were baseless.
Speaking at Damascus University, al-Assad dismissed what he referred to as "foreign agendas" aimed at disrupting the country's tranquility.
"What about the scenes of destruction and vandalism?" he asked.
"The use of arms was the only option left for them," said al-Assad, blaming the killing of some civilians and security forces on paid gunmen and destructive elements.
"Some are being paid money to film the protest while others are being paid to take part in protests," said al-Assad, without, however, indicating who was behind the activities.
"Innocent blood has been shed," he said.
Al-Assad, who took over the presidency shortly after his father's death in 2000, has used Syria's vast security apparatus, including an army division led by his brother Maher al-Assad, to try and quell the uprising, according to witnesses.
Emboldened by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets in the past three months to demand greater democracy, civil liberties and the ouster of al-Assad from power.
Local human rights groups have said more than 1,300 civilians have been killed since protests erupted mid-March across Syria, a country of around 20 million people.
The death toll is difficult to verify as the government has banned the entry of foreign journalists and international human rights groups.
In his third address to the nation since the uprising began, the embattled president said Syria was at "a defining moment."
He said that a National Dialogue Authority has been tasked with making reforms and reaching out to those with legitimate needs.
"But tens of hundreds cannot think for millions," he said.
Although he promised laws would be ratified and a new constitution discussed, al-Assad stopped short of giving a time frame for greater reforms. He also did not specify which reforms might be implemented.
"If a new constitution is proposed, a referendum is needed," said al-Assad. "A new constitution will be the last step."
Since protests began, al-Assad first addressed the nation on March 30 and blamed the unrest on foreign conspirators. His second speech was on April 16 to announce the end to an emergency law in place since 1963.
Referring to previous reform promises, al-Assad said Monday that "lifting the emergency law does not mean people have the right to violate the law."
The speech came on the same day that European Union foreign ministers were to debate a tightening of sanctions against Damascus.
A travel ban and asset freeze against 23 Syrians, including al-Assad, has been in place since May, but the EU is also considering expanding the list and halting business contacts with certain Syrian companies.