Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he wouldn’t abandon his responsibilities as “foreign conspiracies” aim to divide his country.
“Victory is near” and a campaign by foreign media against Syria has “failed,” he said today at Damascus University in his fourth national address since protests began in March. The unrest, which has claimed more than 5,000 lives, according to the United Nations, will end when weapons smuggling is stopped and Syria “defeats the conspiracy,” he said.
Assad said Syria embarked on reform after he came to power in 2000 following his father’s death. A referendum on the new constitution may be held by March and parliamentary elections by May, he said, adding that the countries pressuring Syria don’t care about reform and are using it as an excuse to intervene. He criticized some Arab states, without naming them, for talking to Syria about democracy when they lack it.
The speech, broadcast on state television, comes after the Arab League, which has observers in Syria to monitor the implementation of an accord to end the crackdown on protests, renewed calls for the cessation of violence and protection of civilians. The agreement requires the Syrian government to withdraw military and security forces from urban areas and to release political prisoners.
“The content of the speech was very similar to what we saw in earlier speeches, where he blamed conspiracies, the West, the outside world for what was happening in Syria,” said Chris Phillips, a lecturer in international relations specializing in the Middle East at Queen Mary College, London. “He offered a few superficial acknowledgments of faults and a few superficial ‘reforms,’ and a referendum on a constitution in March but there wasn’t anything of any substance, it was mostly defiant.”
Assad said his priority is to restore security and that terrorists will be met with an “iron fist.” He denied any orders had been given to security forces to fire on civilians.
Assad’s government has blamed “terrorists” and foreign provocateurs for fomenting the protests. He said today that ABC News last month tried to portray him in an interview as living in a “cocoon” and gave a distorted picture, showing him as evading his responsibility.
Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group that seeks to topple Assad, said the government hasn’t learned anything from the past 10 months of unrest in the country, and is “more extreme now.” He called on Arab governments to increase pressure on Assad.
Ghalioun, speaking from Istanbul, urged the Arab League to raise the Syrian situation at the United Nations and called for international protection of civilians.
“The only reply to this speech is the continuation of the peaceful popular revolution and widening it,” Ghalioun said.
At least 10 people were killed by Syrian security forces in the eastern town of Deir al-Zour and more than 40 others were wounded when they fired on protesters today, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists in Syria and is opposed to the government.
Heavy gunfire and explosions were heard in Homs, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group with members in Syria, said. At least 24 people, including three women and a child, were killed yesterday by government forces, according to the organization. A further 27 people were killed today in Damascus, Deir al-Zour, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Qamishli, it said.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Arabi has said he expects a report from monitors on Jan. 19. The Cairo-based bloc said it will continue its mission in Syria as long as the government abides by the terms of the agreement allowing the monitors. The Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria on Nov. 27.
Eleven monitors were injured in an attack today, Al Arabiya reported, citing the Arab League.
A statement from Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el Arabi “strongly condemned the irresponsible acts and acts of violence” against the mission and monitors of the organization. It said the Syrian government is fully responsible for the protection of its envoys and the failure to do so in the port city of Latakia and other areas where mission members are deployed is a breach of the protocol agreed on.
Efforts by the U.S. and the European Union, which also have imposed sanctions, for the UN Security Council to condemn the crackdown have been blocked by Russia and China. The Security Council will discuss the situation in Syria today.