The tenor of what Bashar al-Assad sought to communicate through his address at the Damascus Opera House last Sunday should be obvious. Far from calling it a day, the Syrian president — who has been away from the public eye for a while — is determined to fight on. Although Mr Assad offered his countrymen a new cabinet, a new constitution and even elections, there was no hint of a reconciliation that the international community has been pinning its hopes on for a resolution of the Syrian crisis. Mr Assad has indicated that if there were to be talks, they would be with the “master”, not with the “servants”, thereby rubbishing the locus standi of the recently launched Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate Syrian Opposition. Mr Assad’s “peace plan” almost buries the road map along which the United Nations international peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, had been progressing. Mr Brahimi, much like his predecessor, Kofi Annan, had been aiming for a ceasefire followed by the setting up of a transitional government that would oversee elections in Syria. Mr Assad makes it obvious that he is still hoping for a military victory, so a ceasefire does not fall within his scheme of things. He is not only as determined to maul dissent as before, but also as unaccommodating.
A string of recent military successes could have buoyed Mr Assad’s hopes of hanging on. But it is doubtful if that alone could account for the steel edge in his resolve had he not sensed the quandary among the international powers, particularly the West, when it comes to a joint plan of action on Syria. While Mr Assad remains sure of the backing of Russia, China and Iran, he has shrewdly assessed the nervousness that has gripped Nato members following the events in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi’s rule has been replaced by the chaotic ascendance of fundamentalist forces that recently laid siege on diplomatic quarters. More than Mr Assad, the West seems to be scared of the instability of a post-Assad Syria and its likely consequences for the Middle East. The fear, that has prevented Western nations from joining Arab states in supplying arms to Syrian rebels, has also led to the paranoid build-up of defences along the borders of Israel and Turkey. All that Mr Assad has to do to stay put is rake up this fear from time to time.