BEIRUT — A defiant President Bashar al-Assad pledged Tuesday to crush Syria’s 10-month-old uprising with an “iron fist” in a rare public address that left little doubt he remains undeterred in his determination to stay in power.
Speaking to students at Damascus University, Assad blamed foreign conspiracies, the international media and terrorists for the revolt that has claimed more than 5,000 deaths since March. He lashed out at the Arab states that have dispatched monitors to observe the violence and predicted that Syrian security forces would soon prevail over what he termed the “mayhem” that has engulfed the country.
“Victory is near, provided we stand against the conspiracy,” he said in the 110-minute speech, his first since June, broadcast live on state television.
“The priority today is the return of security, which cannot be achieved unless terrorism is hit with an iron fist,” he said.
Assad’s uncompromising tone made it clear that his government feels under no pressure to implement meaningful reforms or relax its crackdown, despite growing evidence that the Syrian economy is unraveling, the protests have not diminished and the uprising is gradually evolving into an armed insurgency.
His scathing attacks on the Arab League, which he accused of acting on behalf of the West and Israel, and his pledge to prioritize the use of force also called into question the sustainability of the League’s mission, launched last month, to oversee the Damascus government’s compliance with a peace plan.
Attacks on monitors in the northern city of Latakia on Monday further narrowed the chances that the mission, already condemned as ineffectual by many activists, will be renewed after its initial mandate expires next Monday.
In a statement issued in Cairo, the League said 11 monitors were lightly injured in two attacks, in Latakia and in Deir al-Zour in the east. The statement indirectly blamed the government for “failing to provide adequate protection in Latakia and other areas” in “serious violation . . . of its commitments.”
A video posted on YouTube showed regime supporters in Latakia swarming, thumping and reaching into a vehicle bearing the markings of the monitoring mission. The Kuwaiti news agency KUNA said two monitors were briefly hospitalized after the attack.
Assad’s speech indicated that he has no intention of implementing the terms of the peace plan, which calls for the army’s withdrawal from the cities and an end to attacks on civilians. In New York, the United Nations’ undersecretary general for political affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, told the Security Council that more than 400 people have died in Syria since the monitors were deployed Dec. 27, U.S. and U.N. officials said. The figure, based on accounts from local and international human rights groups, suggested that the observers’ presence has not worked to deter the violence and may have made it worse.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the “vitriol of President Assad’s speech today and further belittling by him of the Arab League.”
“The entire international community, the United States and all members of the Security Council are united in support of the Arab League initiative,” she said.
The crisis in Syria has deepened since Assad last spoke in public, yet this address was his most combative yet. At times smiling and joking with the audience, he betrayed no sense of the pressures that have built as the United States, the European Union and the Arab League have steadily turned against him.
Rather, he indicated that a long-pledged program of limited reforms could not be implemented until those he repeatedly referred to as “terrorists” had been defeated. And those reforms, he indicated, would not radically change the current order.
“There will not be a new Syria. We are talking about a new phase in Syria,” he said, making it clear that he would not step down.
A referendum will be held in March on unspecified constitutional reforms, while elections, once slated for February, would be held in June “or a little after,” Assad said. Negotiations with the opposition, which he had promised in the past, are on hold, he said, because it isn’t clear who the opposition is.
Activists said they were not surprised that Assad had offered no concessions. Even if he had, so much blood has now been spilled that nothing short of outright regime change will mollify protesters, according to Beirut-based activist Shakeeb al-Jabri. “This locks us into an infinite loop of violence,” he said.
Jabri and other activists said the speech showed it is time to call off the Arab League monitoring mission and refer the crisis to the U.N. Security Council.
But Assad’s bluster appears to be rooted in confidence that he can count on Russia, and perhaps China, to veto any U.N. resolution that would call for tougher action. Three Russian warships docked in Syria on Sunday for a two-day stay apparently intended as a gesture of support for the government; Russia said the ships left Tuesday.
“The boldness of his speech indicates the Russians have his back,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To the U.S. and E.U., change in Syria means he steps aside, but he’s having none of it.”
Assad is “delusional,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said Monday. “He thinks he will weather this storm” and considers Syria his “personal possession.” But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence, said that “for the most part,” Syrian military forces remain loyal to Assad.
In addition, he said, “the Iranians are doing everything” in their power to prop him up.
Assad also appears able to still count on the loyalties of a sizable portion of the Syrian population, notably in the two major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. After the speech, the Syrian news agency reported that thousands of people were joining demonstrations in the capital to express their support.
Staff writers Colum Lynch in New York and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.