BEIRUT – Syria's president promised a national dialogue Monday to consider political reforms, but his vague overtures to a pro-democracy uprising fell flat as protesters took to the streets shouting "Liar!" and demanding his ouster.
In only his third public appearance since the revolt erupted in March, Bashar Assad returned to a now-familiar refrain: He blamed the unrest on "saboteurs," offered modest potential reforms, but gave no sign he'd move toward ending the Assad family's political domination.
He clearly intends to try to ride out the wave of protests, showing the steely determination that has kept the Assads in power for 40 years. But the mobilized opposition appeared to be digging in as well, bracing for a showdown in one of the deadliest uprisings of the Arab Spring.
"We want only one thing: Toppling the regime!" read one banner among marchers in several cities Monday.
"The timeline is not in (Assad's) favor," Mideast scholar Shadi Hamid, at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told The Associated Press after what he called a "disappointing" speech. "The question is, how long can Assad sustain the current situation?"
Standing before a hand-picked crowd of supporters at Damascus University, in dark suit and tie, Assad presented himself as a secure — and beloved — leader intent on protecting his people. He likened some of the country's troubles to a "germ" that must be fought off.
He said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but he rehashed allegations that "saboteurs" were exploiting the movement.
A package of reforms was expected by September or the end of the year, he said.
But along with his promises came a warning that his downfall could usher in chaos.
"We want the people to back to reforms but we must isolate true reformers from saboteurs," Assad said, speaking from a podium flanked by six Syrian flags.
He said the country's economy might collapse unless the unrest ends, calling that "the most dangerous thing we face in the coming period," a message aimed at his supporters in the business community.
Other besieged dictators across the Middle East — notably Egypt's Hosni Mubarak — used the same argument as they sought to cling to power during the Arab Spring, warning of chaos in their wake. In Syria, the warning has a special resonance, given the country's volatile mix of ethnic groups and religious minorities.
The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military and security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and that spread to region after region.
Assad, 45, who inherited power in 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, previously made a series of overtures to try to ease the growing outrage, lifting the decades-old emergency laws that give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge, and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracized minority. But the concessions did nothing to sap the movement's momentum, being dismissed as either symbolic or coming far too late.
Similarly, the vague timetable and few specifics of Monday's nationally televised address left Syrian dissidents deeply dissatisfied.
"It did not give a vision about beginning a new period to start a transfer from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism," said prominent dissident Hassan Abdul-Azim.
Activists said protests erupted after the speech in several towns, including in the restive northern province of Idlib, in the cities of Homs, Hama and Latakia in central Syria, and in the southern town of Daraa, where major protests first flared in mid-March.
Many of those demonstrating on Monday — said to number in the thousands — shouted that people want Assad out. In the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, protesters shouted, "Liar! Liar! Liar!" as they marched.
The accounts could not immediately be independently confirmed because Syria has barred foreign journalists and placed tight restrictions on the local media.
Foreign observers quickly reacted to the speech, anticipated for days.
The Arab League, which had been largely silent on Syria, came out in strong support of the regime, its deputy secretary-general, Ahmed bin Heli, an Algerian, saying Syria was a "main factor of balance and stability in the region" and saying the league rejects any foreign intervention in its affairs.
That was a reference to Western efforts to push a condemnatory resolution through the U.N. Security Council and to add to economic sanctions already imposed on some in the Assad leadership. After a Luxembourg meeting Monday, EU foreign ministers said they were preparing such new penalties, but announced none, as they condemned the worsening violence in Syria in the strongest language.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said of the speech that what was needed in Syria was "action, not words." She noted that Assad blamed foreign instigators for Syria's upheaval, "rather than appreciating that his own people are simply disgusted by a regime that supports itself through repression, corruption and fear."
She also reported that Ambassador Robert Ford, U.S. envoy to Damascus, headed on Monday to northern Syria to investigate events in what has been the bloodiest recent zone of resistance and crackdown.
In the past two weeks, almost 11,000 Syrians have fled from that area of military operations into neighboring Turkey in an embarrassing spectacle for one of the most tightly controlled countries in the Middle East.
Assad appealed to the refugees to come home, saying there would be no retribution.
But Hussein, a Syrian refugee who listened to Assad's speech from a camp in Turkey, said he was too frightened to return after seeing Assad's forces massacring their own people.
"I am not going back. I am not stupid," he said, asking to be identified only by his first name for fear of reprisals.
Four hours after Assad's speech, dozens of Syrians emerged from an olive grove on the Syrian side of the border and crossed into Turkey on foot — just one small sign Assad failed to persuade Syrian refugees to return to their homes.
Jamal Ahmad, an older man from Jisr al-Shughour, a town stormed by the military, said he didn't trust the Syrian leader.
"It is impossible for us to go back until he is overthrown," Ahmad said. "He has not kept his promises so far."
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Jisr al-Shughour, Syria; Selcan Hacaoglu in Guvecci, Turkey; Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Don Melvin in Luxembourg contributed to this report.