BEIRUT // Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, facing mounting pressure at home and abroad, has warned that foreign intervention in his country's violent uprising could trigger an "earthquake" that "would burn the whole region".
"Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?" he told Britain's The Sunday Telegraph in his first interview with a western media organisation since the Arab Spring-inspired revolt against his regime erupted seven months ago.
His grim warning comes amid growing calls from protesters for a Libya-style no-fly zone, increasingly frequent clashes between government troops and army defectors which killed at least 30 soldiers on Saturday, and one-time ally Turkey's admission it is hosting armed Syrian rebels.
"Syria is the hub now in this region," Mr Al Assad said. "It is the fault line,and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake."
The remarks appeared to reflect his increasing fear of foreign intervention after the ouster and death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a popular uprising supported by Nato-led air strikes to protect rebels and civilians from government forces.
Syrian opposition leaders have not called for an armed uprising such as the one in Libya and have, for the most part, opposed foreign intervention.
And the US and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.
But with the revolt in a stalemate, some Syrian protesters are urging a no-fly zone because of fears the regime might use its air force now that army defectors are becoming more active in fighting the security forces. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a clash on Saturday night in Homs between soldiers and gunmen believed to be army defectors killed at least 20 soldiers and wounded 53.
It also said gunmen ambushed a busload of security officers late Saturday in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing at least 10. One attacker also died.
The accounts could not immediately be independently verified. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage.
The unrest in Syria could send unsettling ripples through the region, as Damascus's web of alliances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hizbollah movement, the militant Palestinian Hamas and Iran's Shiite theocracy. Aware of those concerns, Mr Al Assad said "any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region." The Syrian uprising began during a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and is threatening the government of Yemen.
The United Nations estimates Mr Al Assad's crackdown has killed more than 3,000 people since mid-March. Facing an unprecedented threat to his rule, Mr Al Assad is desperate to show only he can guarantee security in a troubled region where failed states abound. In a show of support for the government, thousands of Syrians carrying the nation's flag rallied yesterday in a major square in the southern city of Sweida near the Jordanian border. There have been two similar massive pro-Assad demonstrations in recent days in the capital and the coastal city of Latakia. The Syrian leader told The Sunday Telegraph that Western countries "are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely".
Neighbouring Turkey is hosting an armed group of former Syrian officers and soldiers, the Free Syrian Army, waging an insurgency against Damascus from camps guarded by the Turkish military.
The support for the insurgents comes amid a broader Turkish campaign to undermine Mr Al Assad's government. Turkey has also deepened its support for an umbrella political opposition group known as the Syrian National Council.
Turkish officials say the government is driven by humanitarian concerns and has not provided weapons or military support.
* With additional reporting by Reuters