Only the setting of Bashar al-Assad's Jan. 6 speech was new. The Syrian president spoke from the Damascus Opera House, a cultural landmark built by Assad that many mistook as a sign of his progressive outlook -- a pose now belied by his responsibility for the deaths of more than 60,000 people.
Unsurprisingly, the tone, substance, and theatrics of his address echoed the provocation, defiance, and political maneuvering that has defined his public remarks since his first address to parliament in March 2011. "Is this a revolution? Are those revolutionaries?" he asked the assembled crowd. "They are a bunch of criminals."
What was Assad thinking? Some will agonize over the president's words, searching for a political opening -- they will argue that he is escalating his rhetoric to build leverage ahead of possible negotiation. Unfortunately, that's too optimistic: It is about time we accept that Assad believes what he says, including that he will prevail and that any dialogue can only occur on his terms.
Last July, three Syrian and Lebanese regime sympathizers -- two of whom had just returned from meetings with senior Syrian officials -- told me in Beirut that the regime had settled on a "2014 strategy." Assad's objective was to survive militarily and hold key cities, roads, and infrastructure until then. In the meantime, the regime could at best propose an improbable multi-year process designed to keep internal and external actors distracted by hollow politics rather than the fate of Assad himself. The "peace plan" laid out by Assad in his speech seems designed to do precisely that.
Why 2014? The muddled reasoning I heard was as follows. A presidential election is scheduled to take place then, at which point the regime could come up with an elaborate show of arguably fabricated legitimacy (my question about the feasibility of holding such an "elaborate show" under current circumstances was ignored).
More importantly, the regime expects the opposition to fragment and falter within that timeframe. The armed rebels will come to blows over territory, resources, tactics, and ideology, they believe, and the political front will bicker among each other as they struggle for power. Assad and his aides probably realize that they cannot decisively reverse the rebel advance, but checking it may be enough to generate discord within rebel ranks. This may not be Assad's preferred option -- but he can afford to be the country's strongest warlord as long as he benefits from foreign assistance, faces a divided opposition, and can blackmail his foreign foes into inaction.
Assad seems to be sticking with this game plan: His war talk, his insistence on blaming all the violence on takfiris and Salafis -- code words for his Sunni opponents -- and his jabs at the Gulf states and Turkey were enough to rouse loyalists. Even as the regime behaves like a militia, Assad also still aims to embody a functioning Syrian state, thus placating urban fence-sitters who are still attached to that illusion, as well as Syrians who have been alienated by the rebels. It costs him little to inundate this audience with promises of political progress, however meaningless they may be.