x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Assad: we are at war, and we will fight on

Syria Unrest: A day after UN-Arab League representative calls on him to end the conflict, Syrian leader says opponents are ‘a conspiracy of sedition’.

DAMASCUS // A defiant Syrian president Bashar Al Assad said yesterday his country was at war and that fighting on, not political reform, was the only way to solve the worsening crisis.

In an hour-long speech broadcast live on national television, a relaxed looking Mr Al Assad said his security forces were fighting to defend the nation.

“We are not facing a political problem … what we are facing is a conspiracy of sedition, division and destruction of the homeland and the tool of this conspiracy is terrorism,” he said.

Compromise was impossible where the “red line” of national security was concerned, he said, rejecting claims his forces were involved in the May 25 massacre of 108 civilians in Houla. “The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside,” he said.

Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria and architect of a failing peace plan, said on Saturday it was Mr Al Assad’s responsibility to take bold action to end the conflict, including an immediate “change to his military posture”.

But the Syrian president said it was a national duty for all Syrians to fight those his government brands terrorists, including the rebel Free Syrian Army, which has the backing of all major opposition factions.

“We should not relent against terrorism or those who support terrorism,” Mr Al Assad said.

“We will carry on in a strong way to face those who engage in terrorism and to go after all of those involved in terrorist acts or those who carry arms against us.”

The Annan peace plan, agreed by the Syrian government but not yet implemented according to the UN, also requires dialogue between the opposition and the authorities and genuine political reforms.

In his speech, delivered in parliament to newly elected MPs, Mr Al Assad all but ruled out such talks, effectively saying there could be no negotiating with any of the principal opposition groups. All of them either support the right of rebels to bear arms against regime security forces or advocate international military intervention.

“Syria is open to all Syrians regardless of their views, but terrorism cannot be part of the political process and we must fight against terrorism to heal the nation,” he said.

Opposition factions have similarly refused to negotiate with the Syrian authorities while security forces are killing protesters and keep thousands of dissidents in jail.

Mr Al Assad dismissed widespread criticism that his political reforms were empty, saying real changes had been made, including new a political parties law, a new constitution and last month’s parliamentary elections.

He described the ballot as a “slap in the face” for his opponents.

The elections returned a parliament once again dominated by the Baath party, which has ruled the country since the 1960s.

Opposition groups boycotted the vote and refused to stand candidates because doing so required consenting to Mr Al Assad’s almost unlimited constitutional powers as president.

In apparent acknowledgement of worsening security conditions, Mr Al Assad said “terrorism was escalating” but pledged it would not prevail.

Syrian officials say more than 2,600 security personnel have been killed in the revolt, and thousands of civilians.

Almost exactly a year ago, in June 2011, Mr Al Assad gave a televised address to the nation with the death toll then standing at 1,300 killed, according to UN figures.

In January, at the time of Mr Al Assad’s last live televised speech, more than 5,000 had been killed by the UN’s count.

Now, fewer than four months later, the number is believed to be double that, an indication of the accelerating violence. The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of grassroots activists, said yesterday they had confirmed 12,171 people killed by security forces since the uprising began 15 months ago, 1,126 of them children.

In response to Mr Al Assad’s speech, activists protested across the country and called for the overthrow of his regime.

Also yesterday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called on Russia to support a political transition in Syria. Mr Al Assad’s departure from the presidency should be “an outcome”, she said.

Moscow, a key ally of Damascus, has continued to give the Syrian authorities backing, supplying them weapons and diplomatic cover.

Meanwhile the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said yesterday the Security Council should discuss putting in place a timetable for full implementation of the Annan peace plan, with Chapter 7 action against the Syrian government – including possible sanctions or an arms embargo – if the deadline is not met.

“Our priority at this time is to help the Syrian people … I want to welcome a wider international discussion on the future course of actions,” he said after a meeting with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia.