Assad: West's intervention would 'shake Mideast'

Army defectors hit Ba’ath Party building in Damascus; Turkey said to have contingency plans if violence goes on.

Syrian President Bashar Assad 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout)
Syrian President Bashar Assad 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout)
Military intervention in Syria would “shake the entire Middle East,” President Bashar Assad said on Saturday in his first interview with Western media since the start of a popular uprising challenging his authoritarian rule.
On Sunday, two rocket-propelled grenades struck a building of Assad’s Ba’ath Party in Damascus, a sign, analysts say, that the eight-month revolt may be taking on a more violent hue. The Syrian Free Army, comprising army defectors and based in neighboring Turkey, claimed responsibility for the strike.
RELATED:Turkey has contingency plans for SyriaArab League gives Syria 3 days to stop bloodshedDeath toll rises in Syria despite deadlineAndrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the attack does not necessarily mark a turn toward civil war, but it does reflect a shift in antiregime strategy.
“While peaceful protests have not made it into the main squares of Damascus [the environs are a different story], violent attacks now have,” Tabler said by e-mail. “Are we at civil war? No. But we are now at a crossroads where two parallel forms of resistance are apparent: peaceful protests and general strikes on one side, and violence on the other.
“I think the Arab League finally understands that Assad is not going to reform his way out of this, which will open the door to other pressures,” he said. “The question is to what degree will the Arabs lift cover on Syria, exposing the Russian and Chinese vetos of UN Security Council measures.
And what do the Turks do now? Will it just be sanctions, or something more? In any case, it’s yet another last chance for Assad, and he’s failed the test.”
Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben-Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy, said the rising tide of army defections makes a peaceful resolution of the Syria crisis almost impossible.
“Today it is too late for the Arab League initiative to defuse the tension there,” he said by phone from Boston. “It seems more likely that Syria will go toward a scenario like the one we’ve seen in Yemen, where units of the army are taking sides with the civilian protesters.
This will lead Syria into a much more violent stage, such as attacks on military targets.
“The question is when and how the regime collapses – not if. I don’t see a realistic scenario in which this fighting is defused politically between these adversaries,” Meital said.
From Israel’s perspective, he added, “This instability in Egypt and continued rebellion in Syria make the whole strategic situation extremely difficult.”
Sunday’s RPG attack in Damascus was the first violent antigovernment attack in the capital since protests began in March.
The attack came hours after Assad ignored an Arab League deadline to halt repression of protesters, and after the bloc said it had rebuffed Syria’s request to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission to the country.
“The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue. Syria will not bow down,” Assad told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper in an interview published late on Saturday.
Western military intervention, he said, would destabilize an already unstable Middle East reeling from the fallout of popular uprisings in the Arab Spring.
Assad attributed widespread reports of torture and abuse by security forces as “mistakes,” and said he regrets the violence.
By a UN account, some 3,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the unrest.
“Each spilt drop of blood concerns me personally,” he said, reiterating the official line that the bloodshed is the result of armed terrorist activity.
Assad, speaking after his forces killed 17 more protesters on Saturday, signaled no retreat from his iron fist policy.
“The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighboring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order,” he said in video footage on the Sunday Times website.
Assad said there would be elections in February or March when Syrians would vote for a parliament to create a new constitution and that would include provision for a presidential ballot.
Tabler – author of the new book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria – said Assad’s apparent calm could be misleading.
“Only someone who is completely in denial would be so confident. Even if he thinks he will hold on, these can’t be carefree days in the presidential palace,” he said.
In a letter to Syria’s foreign minister, Arab League Secretary- General Nabil Elaraby rejected Assad’s attempts to alter a plan for the fact-finding mission, which would include military personnel and human rights experts.
The Cairo-based League had given Damascus three days from a meeting on November 16 to abide by a deal to withdraw military forces from restive cities, start talks between the government and opposition, and pave the way for an observer team.
Foreign Minister Walid al- Moualem told reporters in the Syrian capital the proposed mission has “pervasive jurisdiction that reaches the level of violating Syrian sovereignty,” and said he would send the Arab League a letter with questions about its role.
“We will reply to the Arab League secretary-general by responsibly presenting a number of queries,” Moualem said.
“The protocol is three pages that completely ignores the role of the Syrian state. On one hand the Syrian state is responsible for the security of this mission, and on the other hand they ignore even coordinating with it.”
It was not immediately clear what action the Arab League would take after the deadline passed unheeded by Damascus.
The pan-Arab body had threatened sanctions for noncompliance, and it suspended Syria’s membership in a surprise move last week.
Sunday’s RPG attack was the second hit on a high-profile target in a week, underscoring a growing opposition challenge to Assad from a nascent insurgency alongside mostly peaceful protests that have persisted despite the intensifying crackdown.
The Syrian Free Army said the attack was a response to the refusal of Damascus to release tens of thousands of political prisoners and return troops to barracks.
Turkey, once an ally of Assad, is also taking an increasingly tough attitude to Damascus.
Turkish newspapers said on Saturday that Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in Syria if the bloodshed worsens.
“It’s almost certain that Bashar Assad’s regime is going down; all the assessments are made based on this assumption. Foreign Ministry sources say the sooner the regime goes down, the better for Turkey,” one Turkish paper reported.
Meanwhile, dissident Col. Riad al-Asaad, organizing defectors in Syria from his new base in southern Turkey, denied government allegations that adjacent states were allowing arms smuggling into Syria.
“Not a single bullet” had been smuggled from abroad, he told Al Jazeera television.
Weapons were brought by defectors, obtained in raids on the regular army or bought from arms dealers inside Syria, he said. Asaad said no foreign military intervention was needed other than providing a no-fly zone and weapons supplies, and that more deserters would swell his Free Syrian Army’s ranks if there were protected zones to which they could flee.
“Soldiers and officers in the army are just waiting for the right opportunity,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.