Assad vows in interview he won't be forced into exile
In this image made from video, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks with English-language television channel Russia Today recorded at an unknown date in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo)
The Associated Press
Published Thursday, November 8, 2012 7:28AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 3:08PM EST
BEIRUT -- The bravado sounded familiar. Like the leaders of other countries swept away by Arab Spring uprisings, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to never be forced into exile and to die in his homeland.
Assad dug in his heels even as world powers move to boost the opposition in Syria's civil war -- the latest turn in a nearly 20-month-old crisis so overwhelming that even the Red Cross says it can no longer cope.
"I am not a puppet, I was not made by the West for me to go to the West or any other country," Assad said in an interview with Russia Today, which posted excerpts Thursday on its website. "I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria."
The rare interview -- in which the 47-year-old president spoke in English with his words translated into Arabic -- was posted online two days after British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Assad could be allowed safe passage out of Syria if that would guarantee an end to the civil war.
The full interview will be broadcast Friday, the TV station said. It was not clear when or where it took place. Assad was seen in a grey suit and tie, casually talking and also walking with RT's reporter outside a house.
Assad has made only a few appearances public since the revolt began in March 2011. Last month, state TV showed him praying on the floor of a Damascus mosque for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
As the two sides battle for the upper hand, civilians are bearing the brunt of the crisis.
Peter Maurer, the head of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said the civil war has been in a downward spiral for months.
"We can't cope with the worsening of the situation," Maurer said. "The seriousness of the crisis is deepening with every day and this trend has been uninterrupted since summer."
The Red Cross has improved its transportation and logistics, making it easier to bring in truckloads of food and medicine, but it has become overwhelmed by the dire need of hundreds of thousands of people struggling inside Syria, he said.
The daily death toll in the civil war has been averaging 100 or more recently, according to activists' accounts. The fighting pits rebels and troops, and the violence includes artillery shelling and regime airstrikes on rebel-held areas.
Assad's defiant vow to "live and die" in Syria echoed statements by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya -- two Arab dictators who said they would never leave their homelands before popular revolts swept them from power.
In February 2011, Mubarak vowed he would "die on Egyptian soil," and Gadhafi had said he was ready to die "a martyr" in Libya. But both men suffered humiliating downfalls. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the violence that killed nearly 1,000 protesters. Gadhafi was captured and killed.
In the Russia Today interview, Assad also warned against foreign military intervention.
"I don't think the West is headed in this direction. But if it does, nobody can predict the consequences," he told the station.
Assad has made such warnings before, saying any attempt to meddle in the Syrian crisis would cause the entire region to burn.
But world powers have shown no appetite for military intervention, and there are fears that arming the fractious opposition could backfire, with powerful weapons falling into the hands of extremists.
Still, the West is taking steps to boost the Syrian opposition.
Britain on Wednesday called on the U.S. to do more to shape the Syrian opposition into a coherent force, saying the re-election of President Barack Obama is an opportunity for the world to take stronger action to end the deadlocked civil war.
Washington has been pressing for a new, more unified opposition leadership that will minimize the role of exiles and better represent those risking their lives on the front lines. The initiative was being discussed Thursday at an opposition conference in Doha, Qatar.
The meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, both leading backers of the Syrian rebels, as well as Western diplomats and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.
On the table is a proposal to set up a new leadership team that would become the conduit for international support to rebel-held areas in Syria. The U.S. has suggested that the main group in exile, the Syrian National Council, can no longer claim a key leadership role and must make way for those representing activists inside Syria.
Under the plan, the SNC would receive 22 out 60 seats in the new group, while each of Syria's 14 districts would have one member. The author of the plan, Syrian dissident Riad Seif, and representatives of the SNC and other opposition groups met in a Doha hotel Thursday to try to hammer out an agreement.
Seif said after a day of negotiations that he expected a decision by Friday.
He said he was "very optimistic" it would win approval and that most Syrians would be satisfied with the new leadership. The council would form an executive body that would run rebel-held areas until the fall of the Assad regime.
In exchange for setting up the new body, the Syrian opposition can expect international recognition, billions of dollars in financial support and help in "protecting people against war planes and heavy weapons," he said.
Seif said that after a yes vote, the Friends of Syria, an alliance of countries supporting the uprising, would meet in Morocco at the end of November or beginning of December.
Further down the road, the international community hopes for negotiations on a political transition between the opposition and those in the Assad regime who were not involved in bloodshed and corruption. The opposition has agreed to such talks, in principle, but said it could take many more months of a war of attrition before Assad is ready to leave Syria.
Although Assad remains deeply isolated worldwide, Russia has remained one of Syria's most loyal and powerful allies, shielding Damascus from strong international action at the U.N. Security Council.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday criticized the West for supporting the opposition, saying foreign powers should try to force both sides to stop fighting.
"If their priority is, figuratively speaking, Assad's head, the supporters of such approach must realize that the price for that will be lives of the Syrians, not their own lives," Lavrov said in remarks posted on his ministry's website. "Bashar Assad isn't going anywhere and will never leave, no matter what they say. He can't be persuaded to take that step."
The uprising began as mostly peaceful protests but quickly became a civil war. The fighting has taken on grim sectarian tones, with the predominantly Sunni rebels fighting government forces. Assad's regime is dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.