A defiant Bashar Assad addressed his turbulent nation in public for the first time in almost two years, defying the Western powers he claims is fueling the civil war against the Assad regime that has gripped Syria for more than 40 years.  However, the real action against the West came from Assad’s key ally Russia, which has moved forces into Syria as a warning to NATO to keep out, according to the Times of Israel:

A flotilla of five Russian warships laden with hundreds of troops, which is headed toward Syria, is a show of force meant to deter Western armies from intervening in the war-torn nation, the London-based Sunday Times reported.

Previous reports cited Russian diplomats to the effect that the vessels were being put in place in order to evacuate thousands of Russians who still remain in Syria if the situation in the country called for it.

However, a Russian intelligence source was quoted on Sunday as saying that the presence of over 300 marines on the ships was meant as a deterrent to keep countries hostile to the Bashar Assad regime — a key ally of the Kremlin — from landing special forces in the country.

“Russia should be prepared for any developments, as it believes the situation in Syria might reach its peak before Easter,” a Russian diplomatic source was quoted as saying.

The ships are headed to the port of Tartus, where Russia has been operating a naval facility since signing an agreement with Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, in 1971.

Vladimir Putin has learned a few things from the last 20-plus years.  In the two invasions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which at the time was a big client of Russia and its arms production, Moscow relied on diplomatic maneuvers to hold off the US/UK-led coalitions — and ended up looking impotent.  Putin himself tried to do the same thing with Libya, and had the same record of success.  This time, Putin isn’t going to rely on diplomatic niceties; he’s sending a message that Russia will not brook the kind of interventions the West has conducted over the last generation with another one of its client states.

This is a double-dog dare that may not deter the West if it decides to intervene … but will certainly complicate those calculations.  It’s a lot more effective than Assad’s bluster, which communicated nothing particularly new, but corroborated the general prevailing view that Assad hasn’t reached the point where he’s looking for a golden parachute:

Appearing in an opera house in central Damascus packed with cheering supporters, the Syrian leader delivered his first speech to an audience since June last year, and his first public comments since a television interview in November.

He unveiled what he described as a peace initiative to end the 21-month-old uprising. But the proposal, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude “those who have betrayed Syria“, was certain to be rejected by enemies who have already said they will not negotiate unless he leaves power.

He spoke confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and chanting: “With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, O Bashar!”

At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: “God, Syria and Bashar is enough!” as a smiling Assad waved and was escorted from the hall.

His offer is pretty much the same one he offered last year — a peace conference with promises of reform and a new constitution, but with Assad running the entire show.  Even when he first made that proposal, the only people who gave Assad any credibility as a “reformer” mostly worked for the US State Department.  Even Putin would have to laugh at that; they’re not propping up Assad so he can hand power off to radicals in another rigged election, one going in an opposite direction of Russian interests.  They want him to keep his grip on power, or they wouldn’t be sending special forces into Syria to help him keep it.