Defiant Assad calls on Syria to fight ‘criminals’

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President Bashar Assad called on Syrians to defend their country against the rebels who he claims are religious extremists seeking to destroy the nation and dismissed any prospect of dialogue with “murderous criminals”.

As he outlined his vision for a peaceful settlement to the civil war in a one-hour speech to the nation, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria”.

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow him first.

Syria’s opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

“It is an excellent initiative that is only missing one crucial thing: His resignation,” said Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident and member of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition umbrella group.

“All what he is proposing will happen automatically, but only after he steps down,” Lawani said from Sweden.

Assad’s initiative is reminiscent of symbolic changes and concessions that his government made earlier in the uprising, which were rejected at the time as too little too late.

Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Assad told the hall packed with supporters – who frequently broke out in cheers and applause – that “we are in a state of war”.

“We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other,” he said. “It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals.”

Assad has rarely spoken since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011 and the speech was his first since June.

His last public comments came in an interview in November to Russian TV in which he vowed to die in Syria.

Yesterday, he seemed equally confident in his troops’ ability to crush the rebels fighting his rule, even as they edge in closer than ever to his capital, Damascus.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office said in a statement that the bloc will “look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition”.

Assad acknowledged the enormous impact of the conflict, which the United Nations recently estimated had killed more than 60,000 people.

“We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy in any corner of the country in the absence of security and stability,” he said. “I look at the eyes of Syria’s children and I don’t see any happiness.”

As in previous speeches, Assad refused to accept there had been a popular uprising against his family’s brutal decades-long rule and insisted said his forces were fighting groups of “murderous criminals” and religious fanatics backed by a Western conspiracy.

Outlining his peace initiative, he said: “The first part of a political solution would require regional powers to stop funding and arming (the rebels), an end to terrorism and controlling the borders.”

He said this would then be followed by dialogue and a national reconciliation conference and the formation of a wide representative government which would then oversee new elections, a new constitution and general amnesty.

However, Assad made clear his offer to hold a dialogue is not open to those who have rebelled against his regime.

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