DAMASCUS — Syria’s President Bashar Assad blamed foreign plotters Tuesday for the deadly 10-month-old protests against his regime and vowed to crush their “terrorism” with an iron fist.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), the largest opposition umbrella group, branded Assad’s rare speech an “incitement to violence” that pushes the country closer to civil war.
Meanwhile, in New York, UN Assistant Secretary General B. Lynn Pascoe told the UN Security Council that 400 people had been killed since Arab League observers began their work, and 40 people are being killed each day.
After the closed-door meeting, Western envoys stepped up calls for Russia to revive talks on a resolution condemning the violence. In October, Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted draft that condemned Assad’s government over the crackdown.
Russia has since proposed a rival resolution which condemns the government and opposition violence, but there have been no talks among all 15 council members since the start of the year.
Germany’s UN Ambassador Peter Wittig said this was “unsatisfactory” and demanded “serious negotiations” by Russia. Diplomats said no progress was likely now until after the Arab League reports on its observer mission on January 19.
In his speech, Assad denied security forces had orders to fire on civilian protesters, even as activists reported regime gunmen killed 13 more civilians.
Assad said the unrest would only come to an end “when the flow of funds and weapons coming from abroad stops”.
Assad said restoring security was the “absolute priority” for Syria and pledged his government would tackle terrorism with an “iron fist”, after a Damascus suicide bombing killed 26 people on Friday.
In Istanbul, the head of the opposition SNC, Burhan Ghalioun, expressed alarm about Assad’s “dangerous speech in which he stated his determination to use violence against our own people”.
“He has cut short any Arab or other initiative to find a solution to the crisis and avoid the worst,” Ghalioun said, adding that the speech showed Assad’s “determination to divide and push the country towards civil war”.
Ghalioun called on the world community to “work to ensure the international protection of Syrian civilians as soon as possible”, while urging the Arab League to turn to the UN Security Council for help.
Basma Qadmani of the SNC told the same news conference that Assad’s speech marked a turning point in Syria’s relations with the Arab League.
“This is a turning point, a rupture with its Arab environment,” she said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces shot dead at least 13 civilians on Tuesday, including 10 youths at a peaceful demonstration in Deir Ezzor, northeast Syria.
“An Observatory activist in Deir Ezzor said what he witnessed today was a real massacre,” the Britain-based group said in a statement sent to AFP in Nicosia.
“Most of the martyrs were youths who were demonstrating peacefully and in a civilised manner,” it said, adding regime gunfire killed two more civilians in the central protest hub of Homs and an army deserter in Idlib.
But Assad insisted security personnel had no orders to shoot. “By law, nobody can open fire, except in self-defence.”
He said he remained optimistic despite the violence. “These past 10 months, despite all their hardships, were very beneficial... I am confident about the future,” he said.
Assad rejected opposition charges that his regime was a dictatorship.
“I rule with the will of the people. If I give up power, I will do so with the will of the people too,” he said.
The Syrian president said a new constitution being drawn up by a committee set up in October to replace the current one, could be put to a popular vote as early as March.
He hit out at the Arab League, asking what right governments whose countries belong to the pan-Arab organisation had to lecture Syria about democracy or reform.
“The first parliament in Syria was in 1917. Where were they then?” he asked. “Their situation is like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to give up smoking while he, the doctor, has a cigarette in his mouth.”
Meanwhile, League chief Nabil Al Arabi denounced attacks on Arab observers in Syria, in which some were hurt, and said he was holding the government in Damascus responsible for their mission.
“The Arab League denounces the irresponsible action and acts of violence against the League’s observers,” he said. “It considers the Syrian government totally responsible for the protection of the members of the observer mission.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem insisted his government would continue to guarantee the observers’ safety, in a meeting with the mission’s head, Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Al Dabi.
Kuwait said two of its army officers who are part of the mission in Syria were “slightly hurt” on Monday by “unidentified protesters”, in the first reported attack of its kind.
The two soldiers were treated in a hospital and later discharged in good health, said Kuwait’s defence ministry, cited by state news agency KUNA.
Observers from Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates were attacked while heading to the coastal city of Latakia, it added.