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Syria's Assad fails with speech: U.S.

A rare and widely anticipated speech before Syria's parliament by President Bashar al-Assad was a failure, the U.S. Obama administration said Wednesday, criticizing the Syrian leader for an address that would likely do little to appease political demonstrators demanding change.

President blames 'conspirators' for dissent, offers little on reforms

Syrian citizens examine a burned shop, which was destroyed during violence between security forces and armed groups in Latakia in recent days. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

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A rare speech to Syria's parliament by President Bashar al-Assad was a failure, the U.S. government says, criticizing the Syrian leader for not addressing demonstrators' demands for change.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Wednesday that the government thought al-Assad's speech "fell short with respect to the kinds of reforms that the Syrian people demanded."

Assad's own advisers had suggested social reforms were forthcoming, Toner said. But the president's long-awaited words were a letdown, with his ranting against "conspirators" at home and overseas as the cause of dissent that has boiled over into Syria's streets, Toner said.

In the end, he said, it will be up to the Syrian people to judge what they heard Wednesday, and for them to decide "whether or not President Assad demonstrated positive movement forward in meeting their aspirations and hearing their call for political and economic and social reform."

Assad's speech was an apparent bid to quell protests that began nearly two weeks ago.

Live ammunition fired after speech

Shortly after he spoke, two residents said Syrian troops opened fire during a protest in the port city of Latakia. It was not immediately clear whether the troops were firing in the air or at the protesters.

Observers had speculated ahead of Assad's speech that he might use his address to lift a state of emergency that has been in place since 1963. Instead, he blamed "conspirators" for fostering discontent through social media and television broadcasts and said they would be thwarted by the majority.

"I speak to you today at very exceptional times," Assad said. "The events and developments seem to be testing our unity, the test that keeps repeating itself every now and then because of continued conspiracies over the homeland. But our will and unity, and God's will continues to succeed in confronting these every time successfully, which adds to our immunity and strength."

61 killed since crackdown on protests

Assad added that he believed a conspiracy was "linked to close and distant countries, and has some internal links."

In his assessment of Assad's speech, freelance reporter Simon Barrie told CBC News from Syria that very little was offered in terms of political concessions.

"The president said merely that parliament — which is a rubber-stamp institution here — would discuss the state of emergency and the law on the formation of parties."

For the demonstrators who have stood up to tear gas, batons and bullets for nearly two weeks, he added, Assad's words would do little to persuade them to return to their homes.

Human rights groups say at least 61 people have been killed since March 18 in a crackdown on protests, which are centred in southern Syria in the cities of Daraa, Latakia and Tafas.

Videos posted on YouTube showed an anti-government demonstration in the town of Douma, just outside the capital, and another in the southern town of Inkhil on Tuesday, but the videos could not be independently verified.

Fired cabinet

On Tuesday, Syrian state television reported that Assad had fired his cabinet in a move designed to pacify the anti-government protesters. However, the government has little power in Syria. Power is concentrated in the hands of the president.

Last week, he promised increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers. The overtures represented a moment of rare compromise in the Assad family's 40 years of iron-fisted rule.

They came as the government mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters to take to the streets in rallies in the capital and elsewhere Tuesday, in an effort to show it has wide popular backing.

The protest movement began after security forces arrested several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the impoverished Roman-era city of Daraa. Rallies then spread to other provinces and the government launched a swift crackdown.

Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the playbook of other autocratic leaders in the region, who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by promising concessions while ordering brutal crackdowns.

The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime. The unrest in Syria, a strategically important country, could have implications well beyond its borders.

Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

With files from The Associated Press