Syria’s defiant leader urges full mobilization

Syria’s defiant leader urges full mobilization

WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
Syria’s defiant leader urges full mobilization

Syrian refugees watch a television broadcast of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaking in Damascus. REUTERS photo

A defiant President Bashar al-Assad called yesterday for full national mobilization in a “war to defend the nation,” also saying that his government had still “not found a partner” for a political solution to the country’s 21-month crisis.

Appearing in an opera house in central Damascus packed with cheering supporters, the Syrian leader delivered his first speech to an audience since June last year, and his first public comments since a television interview in November. He called for a “full national mobilization” to fight against rebel fighters that he described as al-Qaeda terrorists.

He said the conflict was not one between the government and the opposition, but rather one between the “nation and its enemies,” describing his opponents as “not a loyal opposition, but a gang of killers.”

“The one thing that is sure that those who we face today are those who carry the al-Qaeda ideology,” al-Assad said, repeating previous assertions that “foreign terrorists” were behind the Syrian uprising.

He appealed to all Syrians to join together to defend their nation. “Everyone must defend it ... every citizen who is aware ... and refuses to join solutions that would take the nation backwards,” he said.

Meanwhile, al-Assad also sought to offer a road map to end the civil war. According to his reconciliation plan, a first step would be for foreign powers to end their support for armed rebels seeking to topple his regime. “Right after that our military operations will cease,” he said. The government would then step up contacts to convene a national dialogue conference with regime opponents “from inside and outside” the country, who do not take orders from abroad. “We will hold dialogue with those who are the masters [of their decisions] not the slaves [of foreign powers].”

Al-Assad stressed that any resolution of the conflict must be purely Syrian. “We are now faced with a state of war in every sense of the word, an external aggression more deadly and dangerous than conventional wars implemented through a handful of Syrians and many foreigners,” al-Assad said.

“Just because we have not found a partner, it does not mean we are not interested in a political solution, but that we have not found a partner,” he said.

The main Syrian opposition grouping, the National Coalition, which insists that al-Assad step aside before it is willing to enter dialogue, immediately rejected the plan, saying the speech was directed at those prepared to see him remain in power.

“We said at the founding of the National Coalition that we wanted a political solution, but ... there are now over 60,000 martyrs. The Syrians did not make all those sacrifices in order to bolster this tyrannical regime,” National Coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni said.

Meanwhile Britain described al-Assad’s speech as “beyond hypocritical,” and the European Union repeated its calls for him to step aside.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said al-Assad’s first speech to the nation since June was full of “empty promises” and would “fool no-one.” He took to Twitter to write: “AssadSpeech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one.”

In Brussels, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a short statement: “We will look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that al-Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition.”

Compiled from AFP, AP and Reuters stories by the Daily News staff.