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27 February 2024

Assad vows to crush 'terrorism' with iron fist


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad blamed foreign plotters Tuesday for the deadly 10-month-old protests against his regime and vowed to crush their "terrorism" with an iron fist.

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said the rare speech pushes the country closer to civil war, and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which organise the protests, urged the world to isolate his regime.

In the speech just hours before UN Security Council discussions on Syria, Assad denied security forces had orders to fire on civilian protesters, even as activists reported regime gunmen killed 13 more civilians.

Assad said the unrest, which the UN estimated last month has killed more than 5,000 people since March, would only end "when the flow of funds and weapons coming from abroad stops".

"Regional and international parties who are trying to destabilise Syria can no longer falsify the facts and events," the embattled leader said in the televised speech that lasted almost two hours.

Assad said restoring security was the "absolute priority" and pledged to tackle terrorism with an "iron fist," after a Damascus suicide bombing killed 26 people on Friday.

"There can be no let-up for terrorism -- it must be hit with an iron fist," he said. "The battle with terrorism is a battle for everyone, a national battle, not only the government's battle."

In Istanbul, the head of the opposition SNC, Burhan Ghalioun, expressed alarm about Assad's "dangerous speech in which he stated his determination to use violence against our own people".

"He has cut short any Arab or other initiative to find a solution to the crisis," Ghalioun said, adding the speech showed Assad's "determination to divide and push the country towards civil war".

Ghalioun called on the world community to "work to ensure the international protection of Syrian civilians," while urging the Arab League to turn to the Security Council for help.

Washington said Assad used the speech to try to deflect the attention of his people from his commitment to end his brutal crackdown.

"He's doing everything but what he needs to do," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

She said he must meet Syria's commitments to the Arab League to end the violence, withdraw heavy weapons from cities, admit journalists, free political prisoners and allow for a real political dialogue.

"So that's what we're looking to see in Syria, and obviously this was an effort to deflect the attention of his own people from the real problem," said Nuland.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Assad was "divorced from reality" and accused him of inciting violence, while vigorously condemning attacks on Arab League observers in Syria.

League chief Nabil al-Arabi denounced the attacks on the observers, in which two Kuwaiti army officers were hurt, and said he was holding Damascus responsible for their mission.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces shot dead at least 13 civilians on Tuesday, including 10 youths at a peaceful demonstration in northeastern Deir Ezzor.

"An Observatory activist in Deir Ezzor said what he witnessed today was a real massacre," it said, adding "most of the martyrs were youths who were demonstrating peacefully".

The LCC said Assad's speech proved he ordered killings given he instructed security forces to "continue to beat the activists with 'an iron fist.'"

It called for civil resistance to widen the uprising while urging the Arab and international communities to cut off the regime and "paralyze its repressive behaviour".

Assad insisted security personnel had no orders to shoot. "By law, nobody can open fire, except in self-defence."

He rejected opposition charges his regime was a dictatorship.

"I rule with the will of the people. If I give up power, I will do so with the will of the people too. The largest part of the Syrian people want reform and do not go out and violate laws."

Assad said a new constitution being drawn up by a committee set up in October to replace the current one, which enshrines his Baath party's dominant role, and could be put to a popular vote as early as March.

He hit out at the Arab League, which has had observers in Syria since December 26 charged with overseeing a deal to end the violence, and asked what right its governments had to lecture Syria about democracy or reform.

Critics say the Arab mission has been completely outmanoeuvred by Damascus, with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood accusing it of covering up the regime's "crimes".

Russia, which in October vetoed a European-drafted Security Council resolution that condemned Assad's government over the crackdown, on Tuesday praised the Arab League and urged it to continue the observer mission.

"Their deployment in this country already has a stabilising effect on the situation, and helps obtain a truthful and objective picture of what is happening in Syria," said Russia's foreign ministry.

But in New York, Assistant Secretary General B. Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council that 400 people had been killed since the observers began their work.

US ambassador Susan Rice said the daily death rate was higher than before the Arab deployment and reaffirmed calls for the 15-member council to pass a resolution condemning the crackdown.

She said Syria's government was "willingly, blatantly and in cold blood, massacring its own people" and reaffirmed the US administration's calls for Assad to stand down.

Since October, Russia has proposed a rival resolution which condemns the government and opposition violence, but there have been no talks among all council members since the start of the year.

Germany's UN ambassador Peter Wittig said this was "unsatisfactory" and demanded "serious negotiations" by Russia, although diplomats said progress was unlikely until after the League reports on its observer mission on January 19.