Assad Speaks / One Big Plot

The green banner hanging behind the podium at the annual conference of the Arab Lawyers Union said it all: "Defending Syria is a national privilege and duty." Defending it not from military aggression, but from what Bashar Assad has, not surprisingly, termed "the great conspiracy" by "the international community."

These two expressions made clear the pretext for Assad's defense, which came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first state visit to Damascus and amid calls for Assad to be questioned by the international committee investigating the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Assad's "great conspiracy" was not confined to this demand, "which violates Syria's sovereignty" - another Assad expression meant to fend off such questioning - but extended to the regional activity of the wealthy Western nations.

Assad's plot outline includes the Gaza First idea, the Oslo Accords, the war against Iraq, defining terrorism as Arab and Islamic terrorism, and, of course, the Hariri murder investigation. All these are parts of a single plot. Hence it is clear the entire Arab world must stand against it, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are seeking to mediate between Syria and Lebanon.

And thus, alongside a promise to assist the international investigation "within the boundaries of sovereignty" and the mockery of the Americans' situation in Iraq, Assad made his policy clear:

l Syria will remain Lebanon's "Big Sister," helping it become an "independent" state. The few voices there opposed to Syria are insignificant.

l Assad is not offering to resume peace talks with Israel, as he did in previous speeches. Syria is sticking to the Arab peace initiative as formulated at the Beirut summit of 2002.

l Israel should be investigated for the murder of Yasser Arafat.

l Stripping of importance the expected sanctions, should they be imposed on Syria.

Anyone who was expecting a substantive statement on economic and political reform in Syria, following the release of several prominent political prisoners last week, was disappointed. Assad remained thoroughly vague on that score.