Dismissing demonstrations in Deraa, the port city of Latakia and other parts of the country as the work of a small group of "conspirators", he hinted that Israel was behind the unrest in an attempt to plunge the country into sectarian chaos.
But Mr Assad also issued a warning that carried with it an implicit threat to those who dared to return to the streets. "We don't seek battles," he said. "But if a battle is imposed on us today, we welcome it."
If the president meant to scare off would-be protesters, it is far from clear he succeeded. "He talked to us like the father talks to his children," said one resident of Damascus. "But what Deraa and Latakia and elsewhere have shown is that we have a voice. This speech will not silence us."
For days Mr Assad's aides had been predicting that he would use a television address to make good on a pledge, communicated through a spokesman last week, to offer substantial reforms and lift the state of emergency his Ba'athist regime imposed when it came to power in 1963.
But the speech was twice postponed, leading to speculation of a power struggle in the ruling family.
By confounding the expectations generated by his own minions, Mr Assad's address which contained only the vaguest mention of eventual reforms suggested that hardliners led by his brother Maher, the widely feared head of the presidential guard, are now in the ascendancy.
For many Syrians, the president's reversal echoes a historical parallel. In 1980, Mr Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, abandoned attempts to offer concessions to an uprising led by Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, and instead allowed his brother Rifa'at to crush the revolt.
He duly did so first by ordering his commandos to massacre between 700 and 1,100 Brotherhood inmates in the notorious Tadmur prison and two years later presiding over the brutal pacification of the city of Hama, the centre of the revolt. An estimated 20,000 died as Rifa'at al-Assad's forces pounded entire suburbs. Many Syrians fear that Maher, his equally hawkish nephew, would be prepared to do the same to restore order.
Additional reporting by a correspondent in Damascus who cannot be named for security reasons.