x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

'Syria will not back down' as Al Assad vows to fight on

The Syrian president vows to fight to the death and maintain his bloody crackdown on opposition forces fighting to end his rule.

Demonstrators display a large poster of Bashar Al Assad at a rally to express support for their president in Damascus yesterday.
Demonstrators display a large poster of Bashar Al Assad at a rally to express support for their president in Damascus yesterday.

BEIRUT // The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, has vowed to fight to the death and maintain his bloody crackdown on opposition forces fighting to end his rule.

The capital, Damascus, awoke to two loud explosions yesterday, which activists said was an attack on a major building belong to Mr Al Assad's Baath party.

Arab League foreign ministers battling to force concessions from Mr Al Assad's government will hold another crisis meeting on Thursday after they yesterday rejected Syrian efforts to amend a league-brokered peace deal.

"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue," Mr Al Assad told Britain's The Sunday Times newspaper. "Syria will not bow down".

He said he was prepared to die, echoing the defiant stand of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, who was killed by revolutionary forces after they over-ran his last hold-out in October.

"This goes without saying and is an absolute," Mr Assad said.

The Arab League had given Syria until Saturday to comply with a peace plan that would entail a military pullout from around areas involved in the protests, and threatened sanctions if Mr Al Assad failed to end the violence.

The league, a group of Arab states, suspended Syria's membership in a surprise move last week. Yesterday, it rejected Syrian efforts to amend the peace plan's proposal for a 500-strong team to monitor the violence.

It did not detail what the amendments were.

The United Nations has said the crackdown on Syrian protesters has killed more than 3,500 people since March. Syrian authorities maintain more than 1,000 government forces have also died.

Dozens more people have been killed in clashes since Friday, activists said.

Syria's foreign minister, Qalid Al Muallem, yesterday said world powers were using the Arab League as a tool to force the Syrian issue to the United Nations Security Council. "There is no room for hasty decisions, but rational thinking is needed because there are some parts of the Arab world which are using the Arab League as a tool to reach the Security Council," he said during a news conference in Damascus yesterday.

Asked about Mr Al Assad's comments, Mr Muallem said: "If the battle is imposed on us, we will fight. "We hope it will not be imposed on us ... the problem in Syria can only be solved by the Syrians themselves."

Mr Muallem said the proposed monitoring mission gave excessive authority to the observers and violated Syria's sovereignty. He denied Damascus had sought to restrict the observers' movement in Syria. He did not give further details.

Non-Arab Turkey, once a close ally of Mr Al Assad's, is also taking an increasingly tough stance against Damascus.

Turkish newspapers reported on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly zones to protect civilians in neighbouring Syria if the bloodshed worsens.

"It's almost certain that Bashar Al Assad's regime is going down, all the assessments are made based on this assumption. Foreign ministry sources said that the sooner the regime goes down, the better for Turkey," one paper said. "It is out of the question that Turkey carries out a military intervention to change the regime. However, it takes a flexible stance on opposition groups running activities in Turkey."

The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, told Britain's Telegraph newspaper: "With a strong and clear voice we are saying that the legitimate demands of the [Syrian] people are being supported by us."

The dissident Syrian colonel, Riad Al Asaad, organising defectors in Syria from his new base in southern Turkey, said in a television interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday that no foreign military intervention was needed other than enforcing a no-fly zone and supplying weapons.

He said 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 waiting for the right opportunity," he said.

In his interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Al Assad repeated his assertion any foreign military action against Syria would create an "earthquake" across the Middle East. "If they are logical, rational and realistic, they shouldn't do it because the repercussions are very dire. Military intervention will destabilise the region as a whole, and all countries will be affected," he said.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Associated Press