CAIRO – In his first public speech since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad showed no signs Tuesday that he was willing to compromise on his crackdown on anti-government protesters, promising an “iron hand” even as his country veers dangerously close to civil war after 10 months of protests and violence.
In a two-hour speech, Assad rejected calls for his resignation, and he stuck to familiar themes, painting protesters as terrorists whose actions are only delaying the implementation of long-promised reforms and blaming his regime’s problems on Western conspiracies and Arab betrayals.
He voiced particular scorn for the Arab League, which has suspended Syria’s membership and dispatched monitors to investigate the crisis. Assad called the league a weak and ineffective body that’s done little to further Arab causes, mocking its “failure” to stop the war in Iraq, keep Sudan united, feed starving Somalis or return “even an olive tree” to Palestinians.
“The Arab League is a reflection of our miserable Arab state,” Assad said in the speech, which was televised live from Damascus University. “If it’s failed over the course of six decades to take action that would benefit Arabs, why would we be surprised today?”
After Assad spoke, the Kuwait state news agency KUNA reported that two Kuwaiti army officers were injured when “unknown protesters” attacked a team of Arab League monitors in Syria’s northern city of Latakia. Amateur videos posted online purport to show pro-Assad gangs destroying a marked SUV said to belong to the monitors. In one minute-long clip, crowds chant Assad’s nickname as they surround the badly damaged vehicle, whose doors were smashed and tires flattened.
The Arab League has said it holds the Syrian government responsible for the safety of more than 150 observers who are in the country to determine whether it’s complying with a league-brokered agreement that Syria signed last month. In a statement Tuesday, the Arab League blamed both the regime and the opposition for the attack, saying it was “an attempt to foil its mission.”
Such highly public discord signals just how isolated Assad has become in the past year, as international pressure has mounted against his lethal campaign to crush the protest movement. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.N., and activists say dozens more have died since that tally was released.
Assad gave no indication Tuesday that international condemnation has moved him.
“Our concern today is that such a speech is quite indicative of the total dismissal by the regime of the international community,” Basma Qadmani, a member of the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Istanbul. “And that is an indication that we are going in the direction of more irresponsible and more criminal behavior by the regime in the coming days and weeks.”