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Syria’s Assad is defiant in rare speech

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BEIRUT — In a rare public appearance Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dashed hopes that a negotiated settlement to the nation’s civil war would be feasible anytime soon, delivering a speech in which he offered no hint that he is prepared to surrender power, negotiate with his opponents or halt his crackdown on armed rebels.

The uncompromising stand suggests the conflict, which the United Nations says has claimed at least 60,000 lives, is likely to continue to rage unchecked, despite signs that Assad’s army is losing ground and that even his closest allies are growing alarmed at the surging bloodshed in this strategically vital nation in the heart of the Middle East.

Appearing weary but defiant as he addressed cheering supporters at the Opera House in central Damascus, the president sketched a plan for what he called a period of “transition,” in which a new government would be formed, a national pact would be drafted and a referendum would be held.

Assad’s proposals were vague, however, and made no mention of a mechanism under which he would surrender any of his powers, let alone step aside, as the opposition and most international governments have called for. He put the onus of responsibility for the plan on Western powers, which he said must end their support for the opposition before the implementation of a cease-fire and the convening of a national conference to chart reforms.

In his first public speech since June, Assad also made clear that his priority is to crush by force the nearly two-year-long uprising against his rule, labeling his opponents “terrorists” and “criminals.”

“This is a fight between the country and its enemies, between the people and the criminals,” he said.

“I would like to reassure everyone we will not stop the fight against terrorism as long as there is one single terrorist left in the land of Syria,” he added, prompting the packed theater to erupt in applause and chants of “God, Bashar and our brave army!”

It was one of numerous outbursts of noisy acclamation during the 50-minute speech, which culminated with members of the almost exclusively male audience mobbing Assad onstage with hugs and other displays of devotion, presumably intended to remind the world that he still enjoys staunch support.

The Internet was shut down across Damascus as Assad spoke, and government forces set up extra checkpoints around the capital, a reminder of the threat posed by the rebels even in the heart of the regime’s stronghold.

But the speech left little doubt that Assad thinks he can survive the revolt against his rule without making concessions, despite the soaring death toll and his army’s loss of control over large swaths of territory.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland dismissed the proposals as “yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and . . . to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people.”

Though his comments and proposals were broadly similar to those he has made in the past, conditions on the ground have changed significantly in the six months since he last addressed the country. The rebels fighting loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army have seized control of large chunks of territory in the north and east, along with significant quantities of weaponry, making it all the more extraordinary, analysts said, that Assad’s thinking seems not to have shifted.

“This was completely hard-line, and it shows that he’s living in a fantasy, a make-believe world that bears no relation to the realities around him — neither the extent of the opposition against him nor the nature of the opposition,” said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Shadow over diplomacy

Assad’s defiant tone cast a shadow over the recent surge of diplomatic activity spearheaded by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been quietly but forcefully trying to negotiate a settlement, building on an agreement reached between Russia and the United States last summer in Geneva that stressed the need for a political solution but refrained from specifying what role, if any, Assad should play.

Assad made it clear that he was not prepared to negotiate either with the exiled Syrian political opposition or the rebels fighting on the ground, without whom any peace deal would be unsuccessful. He denounced the armed rebels as Islamist ideologues linked to al-Qaeda and the political opposition as Western “puppets” who have betrayed Syria.

“They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell,” he said.

Instead, he spelled out his conviction that the initially peaceful revolt against his rule, which subsequently spiraled into armed rebellion, forms part of a Western-led conspiracy in which al-Qaeda members are being sponsored to destroy Syria.

Since Assad last spoke, there has been an influx of foreign fighters into Syria. The radical al-Nusra Front, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, has emerged as a key player in the rebellion, lending more credence than in the past to Assad’s allegation that extremists are participating in the revolt.

But Assad derided the entire opposition as lacking in ideology, and at no point did he suggest that his reform package was intended to lead to a more democratic system of governance, the key demand of the majority of those who oppose his rule.

“Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals,” the president said.

From the point of view of those trying to mediate a political solution, the speech was “catastrophic,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

“On the regime side, there is only one approach, which is to use more and more force, and still somehow they believe they can get through this,” he said.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the umbrella group representing the political opposition, said the speech showed that Assad is “incapable of initiating a political solution,” and it urged international support for removing the president from power.

‘We defend you, Bashar!’

The speech’s timing was as significant as its message. In recent weeks, the rebels’ small but important military gains have clearly put pressure on Russia and Iran, Syria’s key allies, to intensify efforts to find a negotiated settlement.

Assad’s failure to appear in public for several months had heightened speculation that he was feeling the pressure and had become increasingly isolated in his palace, perhaps starting to fear for his future and safety.

Yet although he appeared pale and thin, his resolve was clearly undimmed. “Under no circumstances will we forfeit our principles. We will not give up our rights, we will defend our country, and we will continue as we always did,” Assad said.

The audience responded, “With our blood and our souls, we defend you, Bashar!”

Suzan Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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