BEIRUT (Reuters) - A defiant President Bashar al-Assad presented what he described as a new initiative on Sunday to end the war in Syria but his opponents dismissed it as a ploy to cling to power.
Appearing before cheering supporters who packed the Damascus Opera House, it was his first such speech since June and first public appearance of any kind since a television interview in November.
He called for national mobilisation in a “war to defend the nation”, describing rebels fighting him as terrorists and foreign agents with whom it was impossible to negotiate.
His new initiative, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude “those who have betrayed Syria”, contained no concessions and appeared to recycle proposals that opponents have rejected since the uprising began nearly two years ago.
The opposition National Coalition said the speech was an attempt to thwart an international agreement, backed by Western and Arab powers, that he must stand down.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “empty promises of reform fool no one”. In a Twitter message, he added: “Death, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are of his own making.”
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels would “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 spoke confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and chanting: “With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, Oh Bashar!”
At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: “God, Syria and Bashar is enough!” as a smiling Assad waved and was escorted from the hall.
“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word,” Assad said in the speech, broadcast on Syrian state television. “This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation.”
Saying that “suffering is overwhelming” the land, he added: “The nation is for all and we all must protect it.”
Independent media are largely barred from Damascus.
The United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria. Fighting has arrived at the edge of the capital in what has become the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts to emerge from two years of revolts in Arab states.
The past six months have seen rebels advance dramatically. They now control much of the north and east of the country, a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts of the capital and the main border crossings with Turkey.
But Assad’s forces are still firmly in control of most of the densely populated southwest, the main north-south highway and the Mediterranean coast. The army also holds military bases throughout the country from which its helicopters and jets can strike rebel-held areas with impunity, making it impossible for the insurgents to consolidate their grip on territory they hold.
The rebels are drawn mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad, a member of the Alawite sect related to Shi‘ite Islam, is supported by some members of religious minorities who fear retribution if he falls. He has backing from Shi‘ite Iran while most Arab and Western powers sympathise with the rebels.
Assad, a 47-year-old eye doctor, succeeded his late father, Hafez, in 2000. The family has ruled Syria since the elder Assad led a military coup 42 years ago.
Assad’s speech seemed ostensibly aimed at showing Syrians, and perhaps diplomats, that he is open to change.
But the plan could hardly have been better designed to ensure its rejection by the opposition. Among its proposals: rebels would first be expected to halt their operations before the army would cease fire, a certain non-starter.
Assad repeatedly described parts of the opposition as agents of foreign powers who could not be included in any negotiations: “We will not have dialogue with a puppet made by the West,” he said to an outburst of applause.
The opposition has consistently said it will not cease fire until the army does, and will not negotiate any transitional government unless Assad is excluded.
Assad also repeatedly emphasised rebel links to al Qaeda and Islamist radicals. Washington, which supports the opposition, has also labelled one of the main rebel groups terrorists and says it is linked to the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
Diplomacy has been largely irrelevant so far in the conflict, with the United States, European powers, Arab states and Turkey all demanding Assad leave power, while Russia and Iran refuse to exclude him from talks on a future government.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has been trying to bridge the gap, meeting senior U.S. and Russian officials to discuss a peace proposal that does not explicitly mention Assad’s fate.
National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters that Assad’s speech was timed to try and prevent a breakthrough from those talks by taking a position intended to thwart compromise:
“The talk by Brahimi and others that there could be a type of political solution being worked out has prompted him to come out and tell the others ‘I won’t accept a solution’,” Bunni said, adding that Assad feared any deal would mean his downfall.
“He is sensing the danger that any initiative would entail.”
Giving the speech in the opera house, in a part of central Damascus that has been hit by rebel attacks, could itself be seen as a show of strength for a leader whose public appearances have grown rarer as the rebellion has gathered force.
He spoke before a giant flag, constructed of portraits of what state television described as victims of the conflict.
“We meet today, and suffering is overwhelming the land of Syria. There is no place for joy while security and stability are absent on the streets of our country,” he said.
“But from the womb of pain, hope must be born.” (Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Tim Castle in London; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)