Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks at the Opera House
in Damascus in this still image taken from video.
REUTERS/Syrian TV via Reuters TV
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has rejected peace talks
with his enemies in a defiant speech that his opponents
described as a renewed declaration of war.
Although the speech was billed as the unveiling of a new
peace plan, Assad offered no concessions and even appeared to
harden many of his positions. He rallied Syrians for "a war
to defend the nation" and disparaged the prospect of
"We do not reject political dialogue ... but with whom should
we hold a dialogue? With extremists who don't believe in any
language but killing and terrorism?" Assad asked supporters
who packed Damascus Opera House for his first speech since
"Should we speak to gangs recruited abroad that follow the
orders of foreigners? Should we have official dialogue with a
puppet made by the West, which has scripted its lines?"
It was his first public speech to an audience in six months.
Since the last, rebels have reached the capital's outskirts.
George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National
Coalition, told Reuters the peace plan Assad put at the heart
of his speech did "not even deserve to be called an
"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will
continue his war against the Syrian people," he said.
"The appropriate response is to continue to resist this
unacceptable regime and for the Free Syrian Army to continue
its work in liberating Syria until every inch of land is
The speech was seen by many as a response to U.N. mediator
Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been meeting U.S. and Russian
officials to try to narrow differences between Washington and
Moscow over a peace plan. Brahimi also met Assad in Syria
late last month.
"Lakhdar Brahimi must feel foolish after that Assad speech,
where his diplomacy is dismissed as intolerable
intervention," said Rana Kabbani, a Syrian analyst who
supports the opposition.
The United States, European Union, Turkey and most Arab
states have called on Assad to quit. Russia, which sells arms
to and leases a naval base from Syria, says it backs a
transition of power but that Assad's departure should not be
a precondition for any talks.
Assad's foreign foes were scornful and dismissive of the
speech: "His remarks are just repetitions of what he's said
all along," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
"It seems he's locked himself up in a room and only reads the
intelligence reports presented to him."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said "empty promises
of reform fool no one". In a Twitter message, he added:
"Death, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are of his
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels would
"look carefully if there is anything new in the speech, but
we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and
allow for a political transition".
The 47-year-old Assad, tall and moustachioed, in a business
suit and tie, spoke confidently for about an hour before a
crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him
to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and
chanting: "With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, oh
At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage,
mobbing him and shouting: "God, Syria and Bashar is enough!"
as a smiling president waved and was escorted from the hall
past a backdrop showing a Syrian flag made of pictures of
people whom state television described as "martyrs" of the
conflict so far.
"We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word,"
Assad said in the speech, broadcast on Syrian state
television. "This war targets Syria using a handful of
Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend
Independent media are largely barred from Damascus.
Giving the speech in the opera house, in a part of central
Damascus that has been hit by rebel attacks, could be
intended as a show of strength by a leader whose public
appearances have grown rarer as the rebellion has gathered
Critics saw irony in the venue: "Assad speech appropriately
made in Opera House!" tweeted Rami Khouri, a commentator for
Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. "It was operatic in its
other-worldly fantasy, unrelated to realities outside the
The United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in the
civil war, the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts to
emerge in two years of revolts in Arab states.
Rebels now control much of the north and east of the country,
a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts of the capital and the
main border crossings with Turkey in the north.
But Assad's forces are still firmly in control of most of the
densely populated southwest, the main north-south highway and
the Mediterranean coast. The army also holds military bases
throughout the country from which its helicopters and jets
can strike rebel-held areas with impunity, making it
impossible for the insurgents to consolidate their grip on
territory they hold.
Assad, an eye doctor, has ruled since 2000, succeeding his
late father Hafez, who had seized power in a 1970 coup.
The rebels are drawn mainly from Syria's Sunni Muslim
majority, while Assad, a member of the Alawite sect related
to Shi'ite Islam, is supported by some members of religious
minorities who fear retribution if he falls.
The conflict has heightened confrontation in the Middle East
between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab rulers, particularly
those in the Gulf who are allied with the West against
The plan unveiled in Sunday's speech could hardly have been
better designed to ensure its rejection by the opposition.
Among its proposals: rebels would first be expected to halt
operations before the army would cease fire, a certain
Assad also repeatedly emphasised rebel links to al Qaeda and
other Sunni Islamist radicals. Washington has also labelled
one of the main rebel groups a terrorist organisation and
says it is linked to the network founded by Osama bin Laden.
Diplomacy has been largely irrelevant so far in the conflict,
with Moscow vetoing U.N. resolutions against Assad.
U.N. mediator Brahimi has been trying to bridge the gap,
meeting senior U.S. and Russian officials to discuss his own
peace proposal, which does not explicitly mention Assad's
National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni said Assad's speech
appeared timed to prevent a breakthrough in those talks, by
taking a position that could not be reconciled with
"The talk by Brahimi and others that there could be a type of
political solution being worked out has prompted him to come
out and tell the others 'I won't accept a solution'," Bunni
said, adding that Assad feared any deal would mean his