Damascus: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a rare speech denounced the opposition on Sunday as “slaves” of the West and called for national dialogue to draft a new charter and pave the way for legislative polls.
Outlining a reconciliation plan aimed at resolving Syria’s 21-month conflict that according to the United Nations has claimed more than 60,000 lives, Assad called on foreign powers to end their support for rebels seeking to topple his regime.
“Regional and international countries must stop funding the armed men to allow those displaced to return to their homes,” Assad said to wild applause from crowds packed into the Dar al-Assad Centre for Culture and Arts in Damascus.
“Right after that our military operations will cease,” he said, adding without elaborating that a mechanism to monitor such a truce would be established.
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 dialogue with (those who are) the masters (of their decisions), not the slaves (of foreign powers),” Assad said.
Any resolution of the conflict must be purely Syrian and ratified by referendum, including the charter to be drafted at the national dialogue conference, he insisted.
After the referendum, parliamentary polls would be held, followed by the creation of a new government, said Assad.
But he stressed for all this to happen, “there must be agreement at the national dialogue conference”.
“Just because we have not found a partner, it does not mean we are not interested in a political solution, but that we did not find a partner,” he told the audience.
He said the conflict was not one between the government and the opposition, but between the “nation and its enemies”.
“The one thing that is sure that those who we face today are those who carry the Al-Qaeda ideology,” Assad said, repeating previous assertions that “foreign terrorists” are behind the uprising in his country.
“There are those who seek to partition Syria and weaken it,” he said.
Assad last spoke in public on 3 June when he addressed parliament in Damascus. In November, he gave an interview to Russian television in which he dismissed suggestions he would go into exile, saying he would “live and die” in Syria.
Since then, he has not commented on the conflict that has ravaged his country, with vast swathes of northern Syria now in the hands of rebels, who also control an arc of towns on the eastern outskirts of Damascus and are locked in battle for control of major cities, including Homs and Aleppo.
In his speech on Sunday, Assad came out fighting, appealing to all Syrians to join together to defend the nation.
“Everyone must defend it...the attack on the entire nation...every citizen who is aware...and refusing to join solutions is taking the nation backwards,” he said.
The president, who was frequently interrupted by chants of “With our soul with our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you O Bashar”, stressed throughout his speech that the Syrian people must decide their future alone.
During his latest visit to Damascus, UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had mentioned a plan, based on a Geneva declaration, that talked of a ceasefire, forming a government and holding parliamentary and presidential polls.
The Geneva plan, agreed in June following talks among global powers and the UN, also envisages the establishment of a transitional government, but it does not refer to Assad going—a key demand of the opposition.
Nato-member Turkey, a one-time Damascus ally, has become one of its most vocal opponents over the conflict in its southern neighbour, and has led international calls for Assad to go.
On Saturday, the deployment began of US Patriot missiles near its border with Syria.
The US will transport some 400 troops to Turkey in the coming days to operate two Patriot batteries, to be based at Gaziantep, 50km north of the border.