BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Monday pledged to introduce reforms within months to address a wave of protests against his rule, but blamed saboteurs for the unrest and warned that no deal could be reached with gunmen.
Assad said a national dialogue would start soon to review new legislation including laws on parliamentary elections, the media, and allowing political parties other than his Baath Party, as well as look at possible changes to the constitution.
Activists and analysts dismissed his promises, saying they failed to engage the demands of protesters who for three months have defied a fierce military crackdown in rallying for greater freedoms, posing the gravest challenge to his 11-year tenure.
Syrian rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed and 10,000 people detained since March.
The United States said it wanted to see “action, not words” from Assad. Turkey, which has had to cope with 10,000 refugees fleeing from the crackdown across its borders, said the speech was ‘not enough’ and called for broad democratic reform.
After Assad’s speech, delivered at Damascus University, demonstrators hit the streets of the capital’s suburbs and in the coastal city of Latakia, activists and residents said.
“The regime has no realization that this is a mass street movement demanding freedom and dignity,” opposition figure Walid al-Bunni said. “Assad has not said anything to satisfy the families of the 1,400 martyrs or the national aspiration of the Syrian people for the country to become a democracy.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a briefing: “Bashar al-Assad has been making promises to his people for years, for weeks. What’s important now is action, not words.”
Washington and the EU have already imposed sanctions on Assad and other senior officials. EU foreign ministers said on Monday they were preparing to expand the number of targets.
Acknowledging the economic damage done by the unrest, Assad urged Syrians to help restore confidence in their economy.
“The most dangerous thing we face in the next stage is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy, and a large part of the problem is psychological,” he said.
In just his third speech since unrest began in March, Assad appeared tense as he pledged to pursue a national dialogue on reforms and held out the prospect of expanding a recent amnesty. Bu he made clear he would not be leaving, as protesters demand.
“We have to distinguish between (those who have legitimate demands) and saboteurs. The saboteurs are a small group that tried to exploit the kind majority of the Syrian people to carry out their many schemes,” he said.
No political solution was possible with people carrying weapons, he said.
As Syrian forces swept through the northwestern border region, blocking refugees trying to flee into Turkey to escape the military crackdown, Assad called on the 10,000 who have already crossed to come home.
“There are those who give them the impression that the state will exact revenge. I affirm that that is not true. The army is there for security,” he said in his speech.
A committee on national dialogue is to invite more than 100 personalities in the next few days to discuss a framework and mechanism for discussions on political reform.
Assad said he hoped the reforms would be ready by September to be approved by a new parliament, but that the dialogue would also examine whether polls would go ahead as planned in August.
“The parliamentary elections, if they are not postponed, will be held in August. We will have a new parliament by ... August and I think we can say that we are able to accomplish this package (of reforms) ... in September,” he said.
Lebanese analyst Oussama Safa said Assad’s reform pledges were “too little too late,” adding that, for Syria’s opposition, Assad had lost legitimacy.
The violence so close to Turkey’s border has challenged the policy of “zero problems with neighbors” under which it has befriended the Middle East’s entrenched autocratic rulers while presenting itself as a champion of democracy.
A senior Turkish official said Sunday that Assad had less than a week to start implementing long-promised political reforms before “foreign intervention” begins, although he did not specify what this might mean.
Monday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said in a speech that Assad’s proposals were “not enough,” and that he should transform Syria into a multi-party democracy.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, speaking ahead of the EU meeting, said Assad had a last chance to “concretely start reforms,” but added that many people were losing hope.
“So far we have been looking at horrible crimes ... Police shooting civilians in the streets ... This is absolutely unacceptable,” Frattini told reporters.
Faced with troops firing live ammunition, Syrian protesters have taken to venting their anger against Assad at night.
Demonstrations erupted overnight in the cities of Hama, Homs, Latakia, Deir al-Zor, the town of Madaya near the Lebanese border, several suburbs of the capital Damascus and in Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, witnesses and activists said.
Authorities blame the violence on armed groups and Islamists, backed by foreign powers. Syria has barred most international journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev practically ruled out Moscow backing any U.N. resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
In an interview published in the Financial Times Monday, Medvedev criticised the way Western countries had interpreted U.N. Resolution 1973 on Libya, which he said turned it into “a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation.”
“I would not like a Syrian resolution to be pulled off in a similar manner,” he added.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans in Beirut, Francesco Guarascio and David Brunnstrom and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Kevin Liffey