Syria President Bashar Assad denies role in massacres


AMMAN, Jordan — A defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad offered no new initiatives Sunday to revive a faltering United Nations peace plan but instead assailed a “foreign conspiracy” stoking violence and denied his government had a role in “monstrous massacres” across the nation.

“The truth is that even monsters do not do what we saw, especially in the Houla massacre,” Assad said, referring to the house-to-house executions last month of scores of civilians, mostly women and children, in the town of Houla.

The killings in Houla sparked international repudiation of the Syrian government. U.N. officials said evidence pointed to pro-government death squads as the killers. But authorities in Syria blamed the slayings on foreign-backed “terrorists” seeking to frame Syrian security services and undermine the peace process.

“The crisis is not internal,” Assad declared, repeating his government’s long-standing assertion that foreign powers are behind the nearly 15-month-long uprising. “Rather, it is a foreign war with internal tools.”

The Syrian opposition says it is an indigenous movement, though rebel leaders have called on other nations to provide funding and arms to help oust Assad.

The president’s nationally televised address before Syria’s newly elected parliament seemed aimed mostly at a domestic audience. He appeared to be preparing Syrians for more hardships after months of violence and withering economic sanctions that have battered and traumatized the population.

“We are facing a real war from outside,” Assad told the Syrian people. “Everyone is responsible for defending the homeland.”

Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years, mocked opposition calls for democracy, declaring: “This democracy that they talked about is soaked with our blood.”

The president, formerly a practicing ophthalmologist, invoked the metaphor of a surgeon in the operating theater as an apparent justification for harsh counterinsurgency tactics in a brutal conflict that has cost more than 10,000 lives.

“Who is the wise man who loves blood?” Assad asked. “When a surgeon enters the operating room and opens a wound, it bleeds. He cuts and extracts. Do we tell him: ‘Your hands are cursed as they are contaminated with blood?’ Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”

U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan has urgently called on Assad to take “bold and visible steps” to help implement the faltering U.N. peace blueprint, which, among other things, calls for a drawdown of government troops from populated areas. On Saturday, the special envoy warned of “all-out civil war, with a worrying sectarian dimension,” if the peace plan fails.

But the Syrian leader presented no breakthrough measures designed to help resuscitate the U.N. peace plan, widely violated by both sides in the conflict.

Meanwhile, authorities in Lebanon said Sunday that a guarded calm had returned to the northern city of Tripoli after two days of Syria-related sectarian clashes that reportedly left at least 14 people dead and more than 50 wounded.

Annan and others have voiced grave concern about the potential “spillover” of Syrian violence into neighboring nations, notably Lebanon, with its volatile mix of sects and its delicate political landscape. Syria maintained occupation forces in Lebanon for almost 30 years until forced to withdraw in 2005.

The battles in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second most-populous city, involved militants from two rival neighborhoods — a pro-Assad stronghold and an anti-Assad district. The combatants fought for almost two days in running urban battles featuring automatic-weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenade volleys. The two districts have a long history of enmity.

The Lebanese military deployed troops to Tripoli and the official Lebanese news agency reported Sunday that Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who rushed to the scene on Saturday, had been assured that “the security situation is under control thus far, despite a number of limited violations.”

Special correspondent Marrouch reported from Amman and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.