Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday blamed
"foreign planning" for a 10-month-old popular uprising in which
thousands of people have been killed and vowed to strike "terrorists with
an iron fist".
Assad, speaking in public for the first time since June,
also said he welcomed the idea of expanding the government to include "all
political forces" and held out the prospect of a referendum in March on a
new constitution for Syria.
His speech was delivered at Damascus University and
broadcast on state television.
Since the uprising began, Assad has responded with a mixture
of repression and promises of reform and dialogue. Opposition forces say the
bloodshed shows the real face of a leader whose family has ruled Syria for more
than four decades.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been
killed by security forces trying to suppress anti-Assad demonstrations that
erupted in March, inspired by a wave of revolts against Arab autocrats across
the Middle East.
Syrian authorities say foreign-backed armed
"terrorists" have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.
Despite the high casualty toll, Assad denied any policy to
shoot demonstrators. "There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders
for anyone to open fire on any citizen," he said.
But he stressed his priority was to restore order in Syria
and that could only be achieved by "hitting terrorists with an iron fist.
"There is no tolerance for terrorism or for those who
use weapons to kill," said Assad.
The struggle in Syria, Iran's only Arab ally, has alarmed
its neighbours, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Iraq.
"The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious,
sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented," Turkish Prime
Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former friend of Assad who has become one of his
fiercest critics, said on Monday.
The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November and
announced sanctions, has sent in monitors to judge whether Damascus is
complying with a peace plan calling for withdrawal of troops from cities,
prisoner releases and political dialogue.
Syrian opposition figures said on Monday the League mission,
which began work on Dec. 26, had failed to stop the bloodshed and was only
giving Assad more time to crush his opponents.
After a review meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League
said Damascus had only partly implemented its pledges, but decided to keep the
observer mission going for now. An official said the size of the team would rise
to 200 this week from 165.
In his speech, Assad said he would not "close the
door" to any Arab solution that respects Syrian sovereignty.
Syrian opposition figures have called for action by the UN
Security Council to halt Assad's offensive against protesters.
"We need to know what the League will do if the regime
continues its crackdown in the presence of the monitors. At one point it needs
to refer Syria to the UN Security Council," said Rima Fleihan, of the opposition
Syrian National Council.
The League appears divided over whether to take such a step,
which in the case of Libya led to foreign military intervention that helped
rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Russia and China have opposed any Security Council move on
Syria, while Western powers hostile to Assad have so far shown little appetite
for Libya-style intervention in a country that sits in a far more combustible
area of the Middle East.
The United States and the United Nations have both offered
to provide the League monitors with technical help if asked.
Arab League officials said the future of the monitoring
mission, due to make a full report on Jan. 19, depended on the Syrian
government's commitment to ending the daily bloodshed.
Syrian opposition groups have struggled to unify or to form
a widely accepted representative council.
They are split over the role of armed resistance in what
began as a peaceful protest movement, the weight Islamist groups should have in
any joint opposition body, and the scope for Arab, UN or other external action
to drive Assad from power.
Opposition leaders meeting in Istanbul gave Burhan Ghalioun
a one-month extension as head of the Syrian National Council on Monday, after
earlier rejecting a draft accord he had signed with a rival opposition group.
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