Syria President Bashar Assad pledges iron fist against opponents

In a defiant national address, Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday blamed "foreign conspiracies" for a nearly 10-month uprising in Syria and vowed to "strike with an iron fist" against opponents he labeled terrorists.

"What has been decided in dark rooms is now revealed before the eyes of the people," Assad said in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

It was a familiar refrain from a leader who critics say has refused to acknowledge the depth of public anger over four decades of Assad family rule.

Since the start of major antigovernment protests in March, Syrian authorities have responded with a combination of military force and offers of incremental reform that have failed to win over opposition activists who now say they will be satisfied with nothing short of Assad's ouster.

Assad's address, his first since June, drew a scathing response from Burhan Ghalioun, who heads the country's most prominent opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council.

"The regime has not learned anything from 10 months of crisis or from the blood it has spilled," Ghalioun told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey. The only response, he said, was to continue protesting and to ask the Arab League to refer Syria to the United Nations Security Council.

Analysts called it Assad's most confident and defiant speech yet.

"In the West, we all tend to think the Assad regime's days are numbered," said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "The Assad regime seems to believe not only 'we have survived' but 'we have gained the upper hand.'"

Despite a growing list of international sanctions, Syria retains key support from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Russia. Defections from the security forces have for the most part been limited to lower-level conscripts. And the country's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, have not seen the level of opposition that other major centers have.

In a nearly two-hour address, punctuated by applause from the audience at the University of Damascus, Assad insisted that there was no revolution in Syria and said he would not step down.

"I am holding this position by the will of the people, and when I leave this position it will be by the will of the people," he said. "I am not someone who can abandon responsibility."

Assad held out the possibility of a more inclusive government, saying constitutional changes proposed by a handpicked committee could be put to a national referendum as soon as March and would be followed by a multiparty parliamentary election.

But he said security must be the top priority. "There can be no letup against terrorism; it must be hit with an iron fist," he said.

Assad lashed out at what he described as an international media campaign against Syria. And he ridiculed the Arab League, which has suspended Syria, imposed sanctions and sent monitors to verify that the government is fulfilling a promise to end its crackdown.

The league's actions were a humiliating blow for Syria, which was a founding member of the 22-member regional bloc and considers itself the "beating heart" of Arab nationalism. Assad questioned the democratic credentials of the 22-member regional body in which Gulf emirates have been among Syria's toughest critics.

The league, meanwhile, condemned attacks on its observers and accused the Syrian government of failing to provide adequate protection for the 165-member mission. A number of monitors suffered minor injuries Monday when government supporters attacked their convoy in the port city of Latakia, the league said.

In a statement, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem expressed his condemnation of any acts that obstruct the league's mission.

International concern has been growing about the conflict, which the U.N. says has killed more than 5,000 people. The rate of killings, about 40 a day, is higher now than before the observers arrived, B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, told a closed-door meeting of the Security Council.

"That is a clear indication that the government of Syria, rather than using the opportunity of its commitment to the Arab League to end the violence and fulfill all of its commitments … is instead stepping up the violence," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Assad reiterated that it was not policy to shoot demonstrators. The government maintains that most of the casualties have been members of the security forces.

Opposition activists said security personnel killed as many as 38 people Tuesday. They included 18 in the eastern city of Dair Alzour, where activists and witnesses said security forces opened fire on demonstrators and clashes broke out with military defectors.

"I saw three people die today, and carried them to the hospital," said a demonstrator who was afraid to have his name published. He said he heard nothing but threats in Assad's speech. "It was a green light to the security forces to increase their repression," he said.

Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it difficult to verify the accounts of either side.

Paul is a special correspondent.

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