CAIRO — In his first public speech since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad showed no signs Tuesday that he was willing to compromise on his crackdown on anti-government protesters, promising an “iron hand” even as his country veers dangerously close to civil war after 10 months of protests and violence.
In a two-hour speech, Assad rejected calls for his resignation, and he stuck to familiar themes, painting protesters as terrorists whose actions are only delaying the implementation of long-promised reforms and blaming his regime’s problems on Western conspiracies and Arab betrayals.
He voiced particular scorn for the Arab League, which has suspended Syria’s membership and dispatched monitors to investigate the crisis. Assad called the league a weak and ineffective body that’s done little to further Arab causes, mocking its “failure” to stop the war in Iraq, keep Sudan united, feed starving Somalis or return “even an olive tree” to Palestinians.
“The Arab League is a reflection of our miserable Arab state,” Assad said in the speech, which was televised live from Damascus University. “If it’s failed over the course of six decades to take action that would benefit Arabs, why would we be surprised today?”
After Assad spoke, the Kuwait state news agency KUNA reported that two Kuwaiti army officers were injured when “unknown protesters” attacked a team of Arab League monitors in Syria’s northern city of Latakia. Amateur videos posted online purport to show pro-Assad gangs destroying a marked SUV said to belong to the monitors. In one minute-long clip, crowds chant Assad’s nickname as they surround the badly damaged vehicle, whose doors were smashed and tires flattened.
The Arab League has said it holds the Syrian government responsible for the safety of more than 150 observers who are in the country to determine whether it’s complying with a league-brokered agreement that Syria signed last month. In a statement Tuesday, the Arab League blamed both the regime and the opposition for the attack, saying it was “an attempt to foil its mission.”
Such highly public discord signals just how isolated Assad has become in the past year, as international pressure has mounted against his lethal campaign to crush the protest movement. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.N., and activists say dozens more have died since that tally was released.
Assad gave no indication Tuesday that international condemnation has moved him.
“Our concern today is that such a speech is quite indicative of the total dismissal by the regime of the international community,” Basma Qadmani, a member of the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Istanbul. “And that is an indication that we are going in the direction of more irresponsible and more criminal behavior by the regime in the coming days and weeks.”
In recent months, armed rebels have stepped up their attacks on the authorities, leading to a spike in casualties among state security forces. And the Syrian forces’ relentless attacks on protesters in at least a half-dozen towns continue despite the Arab League monitors’ presence. With a ban on independent reporting, most of the conflict’s news comes from a steady stream of amateur video showing tortured and executed protesters, the authenticity of which is impossible to verify.
As the crisis edges toward an all-out civil war whose effects could be devastating for volatile neighbors such as Israel and Iraq, activists’ calls for international intervention are growing louder.
Syrian proponents of foreign military assistance are keenly aware of the risks of seeking a Libya-style intervention, in which NATO forces helped rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi. They worry that outside assistance could result in a prolonged Iraq-style occupation or that seeking the help could rally support for Assad.
“I’d never like to see my country bombed by foreign armies, but what we’ve arrived at is catastrophic,” said Abdel Hamid Soliman, 26, an architect who fled Syria for Egypt four months ago after a brief arrest for participating in protests. “But no one is willing to guarantee any form of protection to Syrians because they don’t want to pay the price after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”
Analysts agree that Western nations haven’t shown a willingness to undertake another such conflict, especially with the United States in an election year. Foreign powers have exhausted their options for sanctions, their calls for Assad’s ouster and their condemnations of the violence.
That’s left the Arab League under intense pressure to stop the conflict from escalating.
“The Arab League will totally lose its legitimacy if it demands international intervention. We don’t want to see another NATO-led revolution like Libya,” said Omar al-Hassan, a Syrian-educated Bahraini who heads the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies, a research organization based in London.
“The Syrian uprising isn’t like those of Egypt and Tunisia, where the people would overthrow the regime, and it’s very apparent that the Arab League is incapable of controlling the situation in Syria,” al-Hassan said. “But if it resorts to another Western-backed solution, it’ll be adding one more black chapter to its history of incompetence. There should be an Arab solution.”
Special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed to this report from Istanbul.