Syrian President Bashar Assad repeated promises Sunday to launch reforms and warned of "repercussions" if the West intervenes militarily in the uprising threatening his family's four-decade rule.
Assad's remarks during a choreographed question-and-answer session that aired live on state television did not diverge from the message his regime had sent since the start of the rebellion last spring: Reforms are coming soon, the uprising is the work of militants, and interference from the West is an assault on Syria's sovereignty. He said the uprising could be "controlled."
In interviews and through social-networking sites, opposition activists immediately rejected Assad's words as hollow and vowed to continue their efforts to unseat him. But the opposition lacks cohesion and remains divided on such issues as whether to take up arms now that five months of peaceful demonstrations have failed to bring down -- or even severely cripple -- the regime.
"Although the regime is very violent towards the Syrian people, we insist the movement maintain its peaceful stand," said Louay Safi, chairman of the Syrian American Council and part of a large opposition gathering this weekend in Istanbul. "After months of suppression, there are naturally some groups on the ground who want to use arms. But we are telling them not to do that."
Human rights activists say nearly 2,000 people have died in the government's crackdown on protesters. The regime banned most independent reporting as it unleashed attacks on rebellious towns by land and sea. Thousands of Syrians have fled their targeted villages and crossed into neighboring Turkey as refugees.
Assad's remarks skirted the issue of the violent unrest in his country. Instead, he focused on proposed policy changes that would allow for freer elections, new political parties and fewer restrictions on media.
He lapsed into so much jargon -- speaking of mechanisms, projections, coordination -- that some online activists joked that his new tactic was boring people to death.
No one has called for an intervention like the NATO-led campaign to back rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. But Thursday, the United States and several European allies called explicitly for Assad's ouster. Other Arab states also have turned up the pressure against Assad, with even the authoritarian monarchy of Saudi Arabia recalling its ambassador to protest the violence.
When asked about the U.S.-led calls for his removal, Assad scoffed at what he described as the hypocrisy of "these colonial states."
Assad said no amount of reform ever would be enough for the West because it seeks to create puppet rulers in the Middle East. He said the Syrian people, not the West, "appointed" him president, so he wasn't worried about the calls for his ouster.