Assad vows to strike 'terrorists' with iron fist

In rare TV speech, Syrian leader says he won't "abandon responsibility" to lead; Indyk rejects charges of US inaction.

Assad making speech 311 (r) (photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Assad making speech 311 (r)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)
Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to strike “terrorists” with an iron fist and derided Arab League efforts to halt violence in a 10-month-old revolt against his rule.
The president’s 100-minute speech, his first televised address since June, contained some promises of reform but no sweeping concessions that might placate an opposition now determined to end more than four decades of domination by the Assad family.
Member of Syrian opposition egged by demonstrators (Reuters)Member of Syrian opposition egged by demonstrators (Reuters)
Assad offered a referendum on a new constitution in March before a multiparty parliamentary election that has been much postponed. Under the present constitution, Assad’s Ba’ath party is designated as “the leader of the state and society.” But the Syrian leader gave no sign that he was willing to relinquish the power he inherited on his father’s death in 2000.
“I am not someone who abandons responsibility,” he said.
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Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, has urged the Arab League to refer Syria to the United Nations Security Council.
The League seems divided over such a step, which in the case of Libya led to a UN resolution that NATO used as the basis for an air campaign that helped rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi.
Russia and China have opposed any move at the Council against Syria, while Western powers have not advocated military action in a country located in the volatile heart of the Middle East.
Damascus’s former ally Turkey, as well as several European Union states and the US, have all called for Assad to resign, but US President Barack Obama has come under criticism for waiting six months to call for the Syrian leader’s exit.
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, said he would have liked to see earlier action from Washington, but rejected charges the administration had abandoned the Syrian people to the regime’s brutality.
“The US has been leading efforts, particularly with the Europeans, to sanction Syria,” he said at a conference Tuesday at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post.
“In the case of Libya, the president had demanded early that Gaddafi step down, but was unwilling – I think correctly – to take the lead in getting rid of him. So a gap opened up between the president’s rhetoric and what he was willing to do,” said Indyk, now director of foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“The president came under considerable criticism for talking a good game but then ‘leading from behind,’” he said. “So when it came to dealing with Syria, he was reluctant to get out in front when a decision had been made not to intervene militarily. If we call for his overthrow, how would we achieve it?”
In the latest bloodshed Tuesday, Syrian forces shot 10 people dead, most of them anti-Assad protesters, in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Gunfire from a checkpoint also killed a man in Homs, it added.
Authorities have barred most independent media from Syria, making it hard to verify accounts by activists or officials.
Assad made scathing remarks about the Arab League, which has sent monitors to check Syria’s compliance with an Arab peace plan after suspending it from the 22-member body in November.
“The Arab League has failed for six decades to take a position in the Arab interest,” he said.
The League condemned an attack on Monday in which 11 of its monitors were hurt by demonstrators in the port city of Latakia, saying Syria had breached its obligation to protect them.
The bloc said the mission had been attacked by pro-Assad demonstrators there and in Deir al-Zor and by opposition protesters in other areas.
According to a source at the mission’s operations room in Cairo, angry protesters in Latakia broke the glass of the monitors’ vehicles, causing light injuries, although no one was admitted to the hospital.
“The monitors were thumped and beaten, which resulted in one monitor’s mouth bleeding and bruises to the faces of four others,” the source told Reuters.
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United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan said: “Unfortunately there have been attacks on monitors, especially those from [Gulf] countries, attacks from non-opposition elements.”
“The task of the monitors is getting more difficult every day because we do not see a decline in... killings,” he said.
Syria said it was continuing to provide security for the observers and condemned any act that obstructed their work.
While opting to keep the mission going at least until January 19, the League said on Sunday that Syria had not fully implemented an agreement to stop violence, withdraw troops from cities, free prisoners, provide media access and open a political dialogue.
Opposition figures say the monitors have failed to stem the bloodshed, but Russia, an old ally of Assad’s government, said on Tuesday the mission had a stabilizing role.
Assad complained Syria was the target of a relentless foreign media campaign. Blaming unrest on “outside planning,” he said: “The outside now regrettably includes Arabs.”
Despite the persistent upheaval in Syria, where an insurgency is growing alongside civilian demonstrations, Assad’s security forces seem to retain the upper hand for now.
The Syrian opposition, riven by factional tensions, has yet to form a widely accepted representative council.
The UN says Syria’s crackdown on unrest has killed more than 5,000 people. Syrian authorities blame armed Islamists they say have killed 2,000 security force members.
Despite the high casualty toll, Assad denied any policy to shoot demonstrators.
“There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen,” he said.
Nevertheless, his priority was to restore order, which could only be achieved by “hitting terrorists with an iron fist.”
Ghalioun, the SNC leader, called Assad’s speech dangerous because he had “insisted on using violence against our people, considered the revolution a terrorist conspiracy and thus undercut any Arab or non- Arab initiative to find a political solution to the crisis.”
The struggle in Syria, Iran’s only Arab ally, has alarmed its neighbors. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former-friend-turned-critic of Assad, warned on Monday that Syria was “heading toward a religious, sectarian, racial war.”
The Dogan news agency reported a Turkish provincial governor saying customs officials had intercepted four trucks on Tuesday suspected of carrying military equipment from Iran to Syria after police received information about their cargo.