Syria's president has promised a national dialogue 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 he stand down.
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 would 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 mobilised 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.
"The timeline is not in (Assad's) favour," Mideast scholar Shadi Hamid, at The Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, said 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 a 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.
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 - 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.