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BEIRUT — By turns defiant and threatening, President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to use an "iron hand" to crush what he called the terrorists and saboteurs behind Syria's 10-month-old uprising in which thousands of people have been killed.
In his first speech since June, Assad showed a steely confidence in the face of the uprising, one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring. But opponents called it a rambling address by a leader who is dangerously out of touch.
Assad repeated his past claims that a foreign conspiracy and terrorists are driving the revolt, not peaceful protesters seeking to reform the country.
"We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country," Assad said in a nearly two-hour speech at Damascus University in a conference hall packed with cheering supporters. He also issued a veiled threat against those who have yet to choose sides.
"Those who stand in the middle are traitors," Assad said, flanked by Syrian flags. "There is no alternative."
The conflict in Syria is entering a new and heightened phase, with army defectors and some members of the opposition increasingly turning their weapons on government targets. The regime, in turn, has intensified an already deadly military assault, and a U.N. official said Tuesday that about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks alone, on top of an earlier U.N. estimate of more than 5,000 dead since March.
Since Dec. 23, three mysterious blasts have struck the capital, killing scores of people in the kind of violence more commonly seen in neighboring Iraq. It's unclear who is behind the bombings, which the regime said were suicide attacks.
The regime has blamed "terrorists" for the explosions, saying they proved that Syria was fighting armed gangs. But the opposition accuses forces loyal to the regime of carrying out the attacks as a way to tarnish the uprising.
Assad also denounced the Arab League, which sent a team of observers into Syria in late December to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that the regime agreed to on Dec. 19. On Monday, a group of Arab League observers was reportedly attacked in northern Syria, suffering minor injuries.
New deaths were reported Tuesday, with activists saying security forces killed at least 10 people in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, despite the presence of an Arab observer mission in the area.
Assad, 46, inherited power 11 years ago from his father and has adopted tactics similar to those of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down uprisings by unleashing a crackdown on their people.
The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime. But Syria's conflict has gone on far longer, and the death toll is mounting daily.
"We will declare victory soon," Assad said, insisting that he still has the support of his people. "When I leave this post, it will be also based upon the people's wishes," he added.
He vowed a strong response to any threats, setting the stage for more violence.
"Our priority now is to regain the security we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand," Assad said.
Regime opponents denounced the speech.
"Bashar is completely removed from reality, as if he is talking about a country other than Syria," said Abu Hamza, a Syria-based activist who asked to be identified only by his nickname because of fear of reprisals by the regime.
Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making activist accounts and amateur videos posted online key sources of information about the uprising and crackdown.
Assad accused foreign media outlets and websites of working against Syria, even claiming that an interview he gave to ABC's Barbara Walters last month was altered. He was widely criticized for the interview, in which denied ordering the suppression of the protests.
"They failed, but they have not given up," Assad said of the media.
Assad also lashed out at the Arab League, saying it "failed for six decades to protect Arab interests. We shouldn't be surprised it's failed today."
The Cairo-based bloc has suspended Syria and sent observers into the country to see that the regime complies with the League's plan to end the violence, remove heavy weaponry, such as tanks, from all cities, free all political prisoners and allow in human rights organizations and foreign journalists. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
Kuwait's official news reported that a group of Arab League observers was attacked Monday in the northern city of Latakia and two Kuwaiti army officers were slightly injured. KUNA news agency said the observers were attacked by "unknown protesters."
Video posted online by activists showed what appeared to be a white Arab League vehicle swarmed by pro-Assad protesters, some of them dancing on top of the car. Another video shows an Arab League vehicle, battered and with deflated tires, struggling to move as Assad supporters around it shout "Abu Hafez!" — a nickname for Assad.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby held the Syrian government responsible for ensuring safety of its observers. But in a statement, the League blamed both the government and the opposition for the attacks.
Syria's foreign minister condemned the attack and promised to protect the observers.
Since the League's observers arrived in Syria in late December, an estimated 400 people have died in the uprising, diplomats quoted U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe as saying in a closed-door report to the 15-member Security Council.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the rate was even higher than before the monitors arrived and a clear indication the Syrian government was stepping up the violence.
Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at London's Chatham House, said Assad's speech was "a pretense of strength."
"Even supporters will be hard pushed to believe that revolutionaries are the ones cutting electricity, gas, medicine and food from reaching most people," she said.
"Neither the Syrian regime's recent actions nor Assad's speech today show a change in strategy," she said. "They will pretend to be strong and invincible in the face of conspiracy, while threatening revolutionaries and beseeching supporters to stand by."
Assad has made only four public speeches since the anti-government uprising began in March. The regime's crackdown has led to international isolation and sanctions.
As in his previous appearances, Assad made some gestures of reform, including plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution in March. Now, the constitution enshrines his Baath Party as the leader of the state.
He also took a strict line on whether the opposition should be part of the government, saying any members who live abroad would "betray the people" of Syria. After decades of autocratic rule, Syria has few strong opposition members inside the country. Many have moved overseas to escape the regime.
"We don't want an opposition that sits in embassies and gets orders from abroad," Assad said. "We will not accept an opposition that blackmails us."
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, said the time has come for the Arab League to refer the case of Syria to the U.N. Security Council.
"The Arab League has not been able to achieve the protection of civilians. ... This regime is built on terrorism and violence," Ghalioun told reporters in Istanbul.
A Security Council vote would be a controversial step, especially after a similar move paved the way for NATO airstrikes that eventually brought down Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Syrian allies Russia and China would likely block the vote.
Israel's military chief, meanwhile, said his country is getting ready to take in Syrian refugees in the Golan Heights should Assad's regime fall.
Lt. Gen Benny Gantz told a parliamentary committee Tuesday that a toppling of Assad would mean that members of his Alawite minority sect, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, would flee the country. Gantz's comments were relayed by a meeting participant who, under committee guidelines, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel captured the Golan from Syria in 1967, then annexed it in 1981 in a move that has not been recognized internationally.
Also Tuesday, two human rights groups said a 4-month-old girl's bruised body was returned to her family more than two weeks after the child was taken into custody along with her parents in Homs, a restive province in central Syria.
The body was handed over to her uncle because her parents remain in custody, according to the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee and the Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian activist coalition.
"Her body had blue bruises and marks of torture," the Syrian Human Rights Committee said.
The allegations could not be independently verified.