BEIRUT // The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, vowed to respond to threats against him with an “iron hand” and refused to step down today, insisting he still has his people’s support despite the 10-month uprising against him.
In his first speech since June, Mr Al Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy and terrorists are behind the unrest – not true reformers.
“Our priority now is to regain security which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,” Mr Al Assad said in a two-hour speech at Damascus University, where he stood at a podium flanked by Syrian flags. “We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country.”
Mr Al Assad also lashed out at the Arab League, saying the Cairo-based bloc failed to protect Arab interests. The league has suspended Syria’s membership and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Mr Al Assad agreed to on December 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
“The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests,” Mr Al Assad said. “We shouldn’t be surprised its failed today.”
The president has made only four public speeches since the uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. The regime’s crackdown on dissent has killed thousands and led to international isolation and sanctions.
Today’s speech differed little from his previous appearances, in that Mr Al Assad struck a defiant tone and reiterated claims of conspiracy.
Mr Al Assad, 46, inherited power 11 years ago from his father and has adopted tactics similar to those of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by offering claims of conspiracy while unleashing a crackdown on their people.
The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily – until people accepted nothing less than the end of the regime. But Syria’s conflict has gone on far longer, and the death toll is mounting daily.
“We will declare victory soon,” he said. “When I leave this post, it will be also based upon the people’s wishes.”
He asked what right governments, including Gulf countries, had to lecture Syria about democracy or reform.
“The first parliament in Syria was in 1917. Where were they then?” he said.
“Their situation is like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to give up smoking while he, the doctor, has a cigarette in his mouth.”
Syria’s opposition on Monday denounced Arab League efforts and called on the United Nations to take charge of attempts to end the regime’s bloody crackdown on dissent that the world body says has cost more than 5,000 lives.
“Bashar is completely removed from reality, as if he is talking about a country other than Syria,” said a Syria-based activist who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Hamza, because of fear of reprisals. “After 10 months of bloodshed, he comes out and talks of a foreign conspiracy.”
Mr Al Assad also said he was implementing reforms and that a referendum on a new constitution should be held in March. As it stands now, the constitution enshrines his Baath party as the leader of the state.
But Mr Al Assad emphasised the measures are not coming because of pressure from the crisis.
“If reform is forced, it will fail,” he said. “Reform for us is the natural path.”