DAMASCUS – President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday blamed conspirators for unrest sweeping Syria and dashed hopes of an end to decades of emergency rule in his first speech since protests erupted two weeks ago.
In a highly anticipated address to parliament that lasted almost an hour, Assad warned Syria's "enemies" were targeting its unity and failed to deliver the expected announcement that he was ending the 48-year-old emergency.
Human rights groups expressed disappointment. Washington said the speech failed to meet the expectations of the Syrian people.
"Although President Assad did acknowledge the need for reform, his failure to address head-on the lifting of the state of emergency smacks of procrastination," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director of London-based watchdog Amnesty International.
"He could declare this tomorrow if he wanted," Luther said, adding that pinning the blame on a foreign "conspiracy" was a "dangerous diversion."
Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the speech had been "extremely disappointing."
"President Assad simply repeated the same vague promises of reform that he?s been uttering for over a decade," Houry told AFP.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Assad's speech "fell short."
"It's clear to us that it didn't have much substance to it," Toner said, adding that he thought the Syrian people would be disappointed.
Key Assad aide Buthaina Shaaban had told AFP on Sunday that the government intended to lift the state of emergency, which authorises the arrest and interrogation of any individual and restricts gatherings and movement, but could not elaborate on the "timeframe."
Assad, who appeared relaxed and exchanged jokes with parliamentarians, echoed that statement on Wednesday, saying that talks were underway on new laws on the media and political pluralism.
"The measures announced Thursday were not made suddenly," he said. "The emergency law and political parties law have been under study for a year.
"There are more, unannounced reforms ... but giving a timeframe is a logistic matter. When we announce it in such circumstances, it is difficult to meet that deadline."
Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000, has come under unprecedented domestic pressure over the past two weeks, with demonstrators defying the state of emergency with street protests, emboldened by the wave of dissent that has rocked the Arab world since December.
The government of Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri tendered its resignation on Tuesday and a new cabinet is expected to be announced by the end of the week.
The president warned that Syria was going through a "test of unity" and said its foes had taken advantage of the needs of the people to incite division.
"This conspiracy is different in shape and timing from what is going on in the Arab world," he said. "Syria is not isolated from the region... but we are not a copy of other countries."
While acknowledging that the Syrian people had legitimate demands which had not been met, Assad warned that the needs of the people had been used to "trick them into heading to the streets."
"We are all for reform. That is the duty of the state. But we are not for strife," Assad said.
"What we should watch out for is starting reforms under these circumstances right now, this passing wave."
Facebook group The Syria Revolution 2011, an anonymous yet wildly popular page, has called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday.
The Syria demonstrations, which began on March 15, were quickly contained in Damascus, but took root in the tribal region of Daraa, south of the capital, and in the confessionally divided city of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
Gunfire broke out in the port city following Assad's speech, with state television blaming "armed men" for opening fire in the southern neighbourhood of Sleibi.
City residents reported a drive-by shooting at a sit-in, while another eyewitness, contacted by telephone, said security forces had opened fire to disperse demonstrators disappointed by Assad's speech.
Syrian human rights activists have accused security forces of killing 130 people in their crackdown on the two weeks of protests. Officials put the toll at some 30 dead.