ANKARA - Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published on Thursday that he would have been toppled long ago like the shah of Iran if his people did not support him.
"Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated," Assad told the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet
, which has published excerpts from its interview with the Syrian leader over the past three days.
He said Syria, where an initially peaceful revolt against 42 years of Assad family rule began in March 2011, was under attack from Islamist militants sent by malevolent Arab countries, and was threatened by Western enmity and Turkish hostility.
"The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected," Assad said. "The aim is to break up Syria or trigger a civil war. The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this. And we will defeat terror."
Assad responded violently to popular demonstrations at the outset of the uprising and has since used tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships, troops and militiamen to try to crush armed rebels and deter Syrians from challenging his power.
He contends that most of Syria's 23 million people are on his side in the struggle. "The overwhelming majority of the people think like me on this subject," he told Cumhuriyet
Assad contrasted himself with the late shah of Iran, who was toppled by the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
"He led the most important country in the region, he had a powerful army and was supported by the whole world. So was he able to stand up against the people? No," Assad said.
"If I had been in the same situation, that is if I didn't have the people behind me, I could not have resisted. I would have been overthrown. How come I'm still standing?"
Assad's remarks betrayed no hint that he was prepared to consider the kind of political transition proposed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan with broad Western and Arab backing.
"No power, however powerful it is, can defeat a genuine revolution of the people," he said. "But we are now waging war with terrorist groups, not the people. And we will wage war because we have to protect ourselves and our people."
An international conference in Geneva last weekend endorsed proposals for a political transition in Syria, but Russia denies the plan implies Assad's departure, as the West insists.
Syrian dissidents and Western leaders say more than 15,000 people have been killed in the conflict, with many more wounded or tortured, while Syrian officials say their forces have lost several thousand dead to "terrorist" insurgents.
Assad ridiculed the notion that Syrians wanted him to go.
"Look at the situation: America is my enemy, the whole of the West is my enemy, regional countries are my enemy," the 46-year-old leader said. "I am still standing thanks to my people ... Why should I kill the people who stand by me?"
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