Bashar al-Assad's fourth speech since uprising began combines defiance with talk of reforms and praise for security forces
Syria's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, yesterday blamed "foreign conspiracies" supported by Arab states for the crisis in his country and promised to crack down on terrorism with "an iron fist".
Assad's third major speech since the Syrian uprising began in March combined defiance with talk of continuing and future reforms in the country and praise for state security forces who were fighting what he called terrorism.
"We cannot relent in the battle against terrorism," he said. "We strike with an iron fist against terrorists who have been brainwashed."
The speech gave no hint of any flexibility that could break the bloody deadlock between his regime and popular opposition that has seen thousands of people die in the last 10 months.
"God willing, we will be victorious," Assad declared at the end of a repetitive 100-minute televised address at Damascus University during which he received standing applause and cheers of support from an invited audience. It had been billed by aides as an attempt to regain the initiative at a time of deadlock.
"We are nearing the end of the crisis," Assad insisted. "We should stand united.
"Victory is near because we can be steadfast. We know our enemies."
The Syrian leader said a referendum on a new constitution in March would be followed by parliamentary elections in June, but there was no mention of inviting the opposition to be involved or, crucially, of him stepping down in line with the demands of many of his own people as well as of the US and other western governments.
"I rule with the will of the people," he said. "If I give up power, I will do so with the will of the people too. The largest part of the Syrian people want reform and do not go out and violate laws."
It was Assad's first public appearance since a team of Arab League monitors entered Syria last month – an idea he claimed was his own, while attacking the pan-Arab body as a failure. Significantly, there was no mention of withdrawing security forces from cities or freeing thousands of prisoners in line with last month's agreement between Damascus and the league.
"It is clear that the only solution is going to the UN security council to protect Syrian civilians and find a way out of the crisis," said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, the main exiled opposition group. "There is no other choice."
Opposition sources reported 10 people killed in Homs and Idlib by the time Assad's speech ended. Two Kuwaiti members of the Arab League monitors were injured by demonstrators in Latakia. Twenty-three people were reported to have been killed by security forces across the country on Monday.
The UN says 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since March; opposition groups say the real figure is between 6,000 and 7,000.
Assad complained of an "unprecedented propaganda campaign" against Syria. He said hundreds of media outlets had been working against Syria and defended severe restrictions on access for journalists.
He also claimed an interview he gave to Barbara Walters for ABC – in which he gave a disastrous performance and claimed he was not responsible for the actions of the army and security forces – had been altered, accusing the US television network of "professional fabrication".
Since the start of the uprising, Assad has blamed a conspiracy and media fabrications for the unrest – allegations the opposition and most observers dismiss. The regime has banned most foreign news outlets and prevented independent reporting.
Assad did allude to unspecified mistakes that had been m?ade but warned of chaos of the kind that had been seen in Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. "This is a race between terrorism and reforms," he said.
Many Syrians commenting on the speech on social media networks reacted with a mixture of incredulity and contempt, especially to the president's claims that government forces were not allowed to open fire on peaceful protesters.
Lebanon's former prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, called Assad's speech ridiculous, and described him as being in self-denial. In Damascus, one western diplomat said: "It was just more defiance, there was nothing in it at all. It was just a rant." A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office in London called him "a windbag".
Israel is preparing to accept refugees from Syria's ruling minority sect should Assad's regime fall, according to its army chief.
Benny Gantz, the Israeli Defence Forces chief of staff, said Assad could not continue to hold power. "On the day that the regime falls, it is expected to result in a blow to the Alawite sect. We are preparing to take in Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights," he told the parliamentary defence and foreign affairs committee.
Gantz's prediction that the regime in Damascus will fall echoes comments made by Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, last week that Assad was weakening. "In my opinion ... he won't see the end of the year. I don't think he will even see the middle of this year. It doesn't matter if it will take six weeks or 12 weeks, he will be toppled and disappear," Barak said.
Israel's preparations for the fall of the regime reflect its deep unease about regional upheavals. Gantz also warned that Assad could launch an operation against Israel in an attempt to restore support.
"I am not sure that as the events continue the Golan Heights will remain quiet. It could be, under certain circumstances, as a lifesaver, he could act against us," he said.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and later annexed it. Israel and Syria are still technically at war although the border is mostly peaceful.