It's unlikely he'd make such a bold statement today.
For the past six days, anti-government protests have been raging in the southern city of Daraa. Thousands of locals have taken to the streets, demanding greater political freedom and an end to corruption and state-organized repression. Assad's ruling Baath party has responded to these unprecedented protests with a series of crackdowns.
Today's attack brings to at least 11 the number of protesters killed in Daraa, a city of 300,000. Four demonstrators were gunned down at the first protest on Friday, Human Rights Watch reported, and an 11-year-old boy is believed to have died of teargas inhalation on Sunday. The killings further angered the demonstrators, who have torched buildings belonging to the Baath party and toppled pro-regime statues in the city.
This kind of sustained, anti-government protest is almost unheard of in Syria, home to one of the world's most authoritarian regimes. Opposition parties and non-governmental organizations are banned, and an emergency law first introduced in 1963 allows police to arrest and detain anyone they suspect of "opposing the goals of the revolution." All forms of dissent are quickly and violently crushed, and the mukhabarat (secret police) have spies everywhere.
"You cannot underestimate the bravery of the people who have come out to protest," Malik al-Abdeh, who runs the London-based pro-democracy satellite channel Barada TV, told AOL News. He reeled off a list of massacres he said the Baath party has carried out against various branches of the opposition. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the city of Hama in 1982 when President Assad's late father, former President Hafiz Assad, used artillery and tanks to quash an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. And in 2004, at least 30 Syrian Kurds were killed, and dozens more injured, in a crackdown by security forces in the northeastern city of Qamishli.
These high-profile attacks have served to remind the opposition of the high cost they'll pay if they dare stand against the regime. And Abdeh notes that the systematic torture and beating of people held in detention, as well as the threat of violence against their family and friends, has for years deterred many Syrians from calling for reform.
Those threats still remain in place today, so why are the residents of Daraa now prepared to challenge the regime? Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said that the agricultural town has "long been a center of restiveness and upheaval."
Farmers from the surrounding region have seen their crop yields and income plummet over the past five years as underground water levels have dropped, and rises in the price of gasoline have made it more expensive to operate pumps that bring low-lying water to the surface. The region's infrastructure has also been stretched by the arrival of thousands of migrants who abandoned their homes in eastern Syria after a similar water crisis.
Already infuriated by the government's half-hearted response to the crisis, thousands of Daraa residents finally decided to take to the streets last Friday following the arrest of 15 local teenagers. They'd been thrown in jail for writing on a wall, "The people want the regime to fall" -- a slogan that has been shouted by protesters from Tunisia to Bahrain. Security forces opened fire on the peaceful crowd, triggering daily protests and fueling anger against the regime.
Although the Daraa rallies were triggered by local events, Gerges said that "the underlying cause is the democratic wave that has rocked Arab societies over the past few months." He noted that the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing revolution in Libya have emboldened "citizens across the Arab world. A barrier of fear has fallen, even in Syria."
Gerges said Daraa's residents have started to confront the authorities in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. The family of one protester gunned down by security forces, for instance, refused to receive their son's body, as the death certificate said he'd died in a car crash. "They insisted that they would only take the body once the certificate was changed," Gerges said. "This is quite surreal, as this is a conservative Muslim society where the tradition is to bury the body immediately."
Even more extraordinarily, protesters have handed a list of demands to the government and warned that unless Assad gives them what they want, this Friday will become the "Friday of the Martyrs." They claim that anti-regime rallies will be staged not just in Daraa, but across the country.
There is evidence that many people across Syria share the aspirations of Daraa citizens, as small-scale pro-democracy protests were held last weekend in the capital Damascus, the Mediterranean port of Baniyas and the northeastern city of Deir ez-Zor. Activists have also set up Facebook pages and websites calling on people to join Friday's demonstrations
Assad is unlikely to bow to the Daraa demands, which call for the lifting of the emergency law and the release of all political prisoners. But he has taken small steps to placate the protesters. The 15 teens have been released, and Faisal Kalthoum, the provincial governor who ordered them thrown in jail, has been sacked.
Assad has also reduced the much-hated two-year period of compulsory military service by three months and promised to tackle corruption. "But those are exactly the sort of baby-step measures that were tried by the now-deposed Tunisian and Egyptian regimes," Gerges said. "Assad is still not dealing with the root causes. Syria is facing a crisis, a crisis of government, society and politics. "
Abdeh said that Assad could be forced to step down or introduce a massive reform program if mass nationwide protests break out. He also noted that the Syrian regime is now coming under pressure from its powerful neighbor, Turkey, to deal with the demonstrations in a peaceful, democratic manner. Any Libyan-style uprising could give Syria's Kurds the chance to fight for statehood, and trigger violence in Turkey's Kurdish dominated southeast.
"The army and the regime are inseparable," Gerges said. "And they will defend themselves as they did in the 1980s."
With the backing of the military, Assad will likely be able avoid being booted from office or forced into making major concessions. But Gerges believes that the president's total grip on power is slowly slipping.
"Even if the Syrian regime survives the current storm, it has been notified by its own public that the situation is untenable," he said. "The authoritarian system is being dismantled across the Arab world. And Syria is not immune to this change."