Assad dismisses West’s calls to resign, downplays unrest

In televised address, Syrian president warns any military action taken against Syria would have greater consequences on those who carry it out.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
August 22, 2011 02:45
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks, Monday

Assad speaking 311. (photo credit: Screenshot)

Syria could see parliamentary elections as early as November, President Bashar Assad said Sunday, adding that the unrest sweeping the country had become more “militant,” but that he is confident it can be controlled.

“We are capable of dealing with it... [I] am not worried,” Assad said in an interview broadcast on Syrian television, his fourth since the Syrian uprising broke out in mid- March.

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The Syrian leader refused to divulge specifics, but said the measures his security forces have taken are succeeding, and that the situation in his country would soon return to normal.

“As for the threat of a military action... any action against Syria will have greater consequences [on those who carry it out], greater than they can tolerate,” he added.

Turning to reform, Assad said a national dialogue is crucial for moving the political situation in the country forward. He said the country would be ready for political parties to submit applications within a week, paving the way for possible elections in as little as three months, though February 2012 would be the most logical time for voting.

Assad last spoke in public in June. He said he would introduce reforms within months to address the wave of protests sweeping Syria, but blamed saboteurs for the violence and warned that no deal could be reached with gunmen.

Since then international pressure has stepped up, with the United States and European allies calling on him to quit and imposing new sanctions in protest at his crackdown, which the United Nations said has killed 2,000 civilians.

On Saturday a UN team arrived in Syria to assess humanitarian needs in the country, a UN official said. The UN has sought access for the team since May.

“We welcome the fact that the government has approved the humanitarian mission,” said the official. She added that the team will “assess the humanitarian situation and condition of basic social services and identify initial assistance needs that could be addressed through a rapid response.”

She did not say which parts of the country the team would visit, but said the mission would continue until Thursday.

UN humanitarian Affairs Chief, Valerie Amos, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that the visit must not be a one-time offer, and that her team would need unhindered access to all parts of Syria.

Assad told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that all military and police operations had ceased, but activists say dozens of protesters have been killed since then.

Syria’s UN ambassador has accused the United States and its allies of waging a “diplomatic and humanitarian war” against Syria. “These forces have nothing but hatred against my country and my nation,” Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said.

On Friday, Assad’s forces killed 34 people, including four children, in Homs and Deraa, where the popular revolt began in March, as well as in suburbs of Damascus and the ancient desert town of Palmyra, activists said.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition figures encouraged by the growing global pressure on Assad have been meeting in Turkey to set up a national council to support the uprising and help fill any power vacuum, should the protests oust the Syrian leader.

Similar initiatives in the past have failed to produce a robust umbrella group to unite the opposition, fragmented by 41 years of harsh rule by Assad and his father, Hafez Assad.

Unlike previous opposition conferences that were marked by divisions between Islamists and liberals, participants said there was broad agreement on 120 nominees for the council from inside and outside Syria.

The council would speak for dissidents in exile and activists on the ground, opposition figures told Reuters.

“It will be a credible voice for the democratic revolution,” said Wael Merza, a Syrian political scientist who played a major role in preparing the list of nominees. “We need to have a road map for a transition and unity among the opposition,” added Merza, who works in the Gulf.

Western governments, who have stepped up sanctions on Assad in reaction to his crackdown on protesters, have privately expressed frustration with the lack of unity among the opposition.

Attendees at the conference included Moulhem Droubi, a high-level member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood; Sheikh Muteih al-Butain, a leader of the street protests in Deraa that helped ignite the uprising against Assad’s regime across the country; former political prisoner Khaled al-Haj Saleh, scion of a leftist political family; and writer Hazem Nahar, who was imprisoned during the uprising and managed to leave Syria.

The conference also brought two groups composed mostly of Syrian technocrats and professionals: the Islamist leaning National Action Front and the more secular Democratic Coordination Forum.

Representatives said the two groups have been meeting to agree on the council, expected to be announced in the next few days.

“The opposition is starting to realize that they cannot be all chiefs and that they have to live up to the expectations of the international community,” said Haj Saleh, a veteran opposition figure.

At a meeting with anti- Assad Syrian activists in Washington this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged them to work toward a “unified vision” for Syria.

Assad said any military action against his country would backfire on those who carried it out.

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