Syria’s Assad boasts opponents failed to oust him
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Thursday that his government had fended off everything his enemies had thrown at him and that the only remaining threat to his rule was a far-off — and improbable — foreign intervention.
In comments to the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper, Assad rejected the idea that what has transpired in Syria for more than two years is a revolution. Instead, he reiterated his past claims that it is a conspiracy by Western and some Arab states to destabilize his country.
He also praised this week’s massive protests by Egyptians against their Islamist leader and said the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi meant the end of “political Islam.”
In Syria, more than 93,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011. The crisis began with peaceful protests against Assad’s rule, then morphed into civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. Millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes.
Throughout the crisis, Assad has insisted that his government is not facing a popular rebellion, but rather a Western-backed conspiracy against Syria, accusing the rebels fighting to topple his regime of being terrorists, Islamic extremists and mercenaries of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states that are allies of the United States.
“The countries that conspire against Syria have used up all their tools — moral, material and psychological — and they have nothing left except direct (military) intervention and this is too big for them to attain,” Assad said in the interview.
He did not elaborate, but the Obama administration is reluctant to mire the U.S. military in another unpredictable conflict and its allies are unwilling to engage military in Syria alone.
The Assad regime says Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, in addition to the U.S. and its European allies, are on the list of countries conspiring against Syria. These states have been chief supporters of the opposition fighting to overthrow Assad.
The Syrian president’s comments coincided with a crushing military offensive on the central city of Homs and a meeting of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul. It was the second attempt in as many months by Assad’s opponents to unify their ranks.
The Western-backed opposition bloc is primarily composed of exiled politicians with little support from Syrians trying to survive the third summer of conflict in a country that has been devastated by the fighting.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been hard hit by fighting over the past two years. The government controls much of the city, while several neighborhoods in the center of town remain opposition strongholds. A military offensive in the area that is part of the country’s heartland is now in its fifth day.
Khaled Saleh, a SNC spokesman, said the situation in Homs has “deteriorated tremendously” and warned that the fall of the city will jeopardize any political solution for the country. Speaking to reporters in Istanbul, he said the Syrian regime “has its mind set on taking Homs even if that means killing tens of thousands of people.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged both sides to avoid harming some 2,500 civilians he said remain in the besieged, rebel-held parts of the Homs.
The Syrian government asked the International Committee of the Red Cross Thursday to send relief aid to those trapped by the “terrorist groups” in Homs and evacuate them through safe passages to be provided by the government, according to a Foreign Ministry statement published by the state news agency.
Sarah Karkour, a spokeswoman for the SNC, said that acting leader George Sabra and senior opposition figures Louay Safi and Mustafa Sabbagh are topping the list of candidates for the new leadership, including an interim government.
In late May, the opposition leaders met for more than a week in Istanbul, but failed to elected new leaders or devise a strategy for possible peace talks that the U.S. and Russia have been trying to convene in Geneva.
Assad has repeatedly dismissed his political opponents as foreign-directed exiles who don’t represent the people of Syria. He has also shrugged off calls to step down, saying he will serve the rest of his term and could consider running for another one in next year’s presidential elections.
In recent weeks, the Syrian army has been waging an offensive to regain control of territory it lost to the opposition, particularly in Homs but also around the capital Damascus and in the country’s north.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between government troops and rebels on Thursday in the Khaldiyeh and Bab Houd districts of Homs, and said regime warplanes repeatedly hit targets there throughout the day. Rebels have held those districts for the past year.
The Observatory said fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant movement, which has sided with Assad’s forces, have been battling rebels in Homs. Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian army capture a key town near Lebanon’s border last month, dealing a blow to opposition fighters who have been ferrying supplies and fighters over the border.
SANA said the army struck rebels gathering in Palmyra and several other neighborhoods and took control of a number of buildings in Bab Houd, Jouret el-Shayah, Khaldiyeh and Talbiseh.
Also Wednesday, a government official told The Associated Press that deputy Labor Minister, Rakan Ibrahimn, was seriously wounded in a bombing in Damascus. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said a bomb was attached to Ibrahim’s car, which was parked in the Baramkeh neighborhood of Damascus. It went off when he started the car, the official said, adding that the deputy minister was taken to a hospital.
Rebels groups, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups, have frequently targeted Syrian government officials, regime loyalists and military installations with car bombs and suicide attacks.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.