EU: Assad must quit to allow political transition

Syrian president offers peace plan, calls on foreign powers to stop arming rebels; opposition: speech aimed to foil diplomatic efforts.

Syrian President Bashar Assad 370 (R) (photo credit: Sana / Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad 370 (R)
(photo credit: Sana / Reuters)
Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down in order to bring about a political solution to the war in his country, the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Sunday.
The statement followed a speech by Assad in which he said he would not negotiate with the forces trying to overthrow him.
"We will look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition," a spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said.
A defiant Assad called on Sunday for national mobilization in a "war to defend the nation," describing rebels fighting him as al-Qaida terrorists and agents of foreign powers with whom it was impossible to negotiate.
"We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," Assad said in the speech. "This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation."
He unveiled what he described as a peace initiative to end the 21-month-old uprising, which has killed 60,000 people and brought civil war to the edge of his capital. But the proposal, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude "those who have betrayed Syria," would be followed by the formation of a new government and an amnesty.
"The first stage of a political solution would require that regional powers stop funding and arming (the opposition), an end to terrorist operations and controlling the borders," he said in a speech in central Damascus, his first public comments in months.
The proposal, he said, was certain to be rejected by enemies who have already said they will not negotiate unless he leaves power.
"We will not have dialogue with a puppet made by the West," he stated.
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"We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy while security and stability are absent on the streets of our country," Assad said. "The nation is for all and we all must protect it."
Assad said the rebels fighting to topple his regime are terrorists, not revolutionaries.
"It is a fight between our country and its enemies. It is not a fight for power, it is a fight between the people and the terrorists that are trying to divide the country," Assad said.
"Some people call this a revolution, there is no link between these people, their acts, and a revolution," the Syria president asserted.
"A real revolution is based on a philosophy which aims to improve a country rather than to take it backwards," he added.
The remarks were his first in public since a Russian television interview in November when he pledged to stay in Syria and fight to the death if necessary.
He spoke confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and chanting: "With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, O Bashar!"
At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: "God, Syria and Bashar is enough!" as a smiling Assad waved and was escorted from the hall.
Following the speech, the Syrian opposition rejected Assad's proposed peace initiative, saying it was aimed at wrecking diplomatic efforts to end the civil war.
"Assad simply wanted, with the initiative he proposed, to cut the road to reaching a political solution that may result from the forthcoming American-Russian meeting with (UN mediator Lakhdar) Brahimi, which the opposition would not accept unless he and his regime leave," National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also slammed Assad's proposition of a peace plan, saying "Assad's speech [is] beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one."
Since Assad's last public comments, in November, rebels have strengthened their hold on swathes of territory across northern Syria, launched an offensive in the central province of Hama and endured weeks of bombardment by Assad's forces trying to dislodge them from Damascus's outer neighborhoods.
Syria's political opposition has also won widespread international recognition. But Assad has continued to rely on support from Russia, China and Iran to hold firm and has used his air power to blunt rebel gains on the ground. staff contributed to this report.