Syria's Assad defiant in rare speech

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, top center, waves to supporters Sunday after speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Syria. Assad on Sunday outlined a new peace initiative that includes a national reconciliation conference and a new government and constitution, but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels first.

Beirut - In a rare public appearance Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad pledged to intensify his war against the "terrorists" challenging his rule even as he proposed a package of reforms aimed at ending the bloodshed engulfing Syria.

Appearing weary but defiant as he addressed cheering supporters at the Opera House in downtown Damascus, Assad outlined suggestions for what he called a period of "transition," in which a new government would be formed, a "national pact" would be drafted and a referendum would be held.

But at the same time he offered no hint that he is willing to cede power, and he made it clear that he was not prepared to negotiate either with the exiled Syrian opposition factions or the rebels fighting on the ground, whom he derided as Islamic radicals supportive of al-Qaida and Western "puppets."

"They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell," he said of the rebels.

As in past speeches, Assad spelled out his conviction that the initially peaceful revolt against his rule, which has since spiraled into a full-fledged armed rebellion, is an international conspiracy in which Western countries are funding al-Qaida groups in order to destroy Syria and kill off "terrorists."

He derided his opponents as lacking in ideology and at no point did he suggest that his reform package was intended to lead to a more democratic system of governance.

"Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals," he said.

The contradictory messages seemed to leave little doubt that Assad still believes he can survive the revolt against his rule, despite the deaths of more than 60,000 people and his army's loss of control over a large swath of territory in the north and east of the country.

The defiant tone also dampened hopes that a surge of recent diplomatic activity led by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is making progress toward a negotiated solution. Anticipating that the Syrian opposition would reject his proposals, Assad bluntly stated: "Why reject something that is not directed at you? Don't waste your time."

Louay Safi, a member of the umbrella National Coalition opposition group, called the speech a "waste of time."

"He said nothing constructive," Safi told the al-Jazeera English television network.

The speech was also likely to disappoint those who have been trying to mediate a solution in recent weeks, notably Brahimi, who has been at the forefront of a quiet but forceful diplomatic push for a negotiated solution, according to Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

"From the point of view of the people trying to mediate a political pathway to solve the crisis, it was catastrophic," he said. The reform proposals appeared to be a repackaging of past failed efforts, and Assad offered no hint that he is prepared to step aside, a key demand of the opposition, Shaikh noted.

"On the regime side there is only one approach, which is to use more and more force, and still somehow believe they can get through this," he said.

The timing of the speech was as significant as its message, however. The rebels have steadily been making small but significant military gains that have clearly put pressure both on the regime and on Syria's key allies, Russia and Iran, to intensify efforts to find a negotiated settlement.

Assad's failure to appear in public for several months - this was his first speech since June - had also heightened speculation that he, too, was feeling the pressure and that he had become increasingly isolated in his palace and might be starting to fear for his own future and safety.

Yet although he appeared pale and thin, Assad's resolve was clearly undimmed. "Under no circumstances will we forfeit our principles. We will not give up our rights, we will defend our country and we will continue as we always did," he said before the audience erupted in wild applause and chants of support.


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