BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed defiantly to “live and die” in Syria, saying in an interview broadcast Thursday that he will never flee his country despite the bloody, 19-month-old uprising against him.
The broadcast comes two days after British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Assad could be allowed safe passage out of the country if that would guarantee an end to the civil war, which activists estimate has killed more than 36,000 people.
“I am not a puppet, I was not made by the West for me to go to the West or any other country,” Assad, 47, said in the interview with the English-language Russia Today TV. He spoke in English and excerpts of the interview were posted on the station’s website Thursday with an Arabic voiceover.
“I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria,” he said.
Assad also warned against foreign military intervention at a time when the West is taking steps to boost the opposition.
“I don’t think the West is headed in this direction. But if it does, nobody can predict the consequences,” he told the station. The full interview will be broadcast on Friday, the station said.
The excerpts show Assad casually talking and later walking with RT’s reporter outside a house, wearing a gray suit and tie. It was not clear where the interview took place.
The uprising against Assad’s regime began as mostly peaceful protests in March last year but quickly morphed into a civil war. The fighting has taken on grim sectarian tones, with the predominantly Sunni rebels battling government forces loyal to a regime dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his country will deal directly with Syrian rebel military leaders. He spoke during a trip to visit Syrian refugees in Jordan. Previously, Britain and the U.S. have acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures — some connected to rebel forces — inside Syria.
He called on the U.S. to join his country in doing 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 the Qatari capital of Doha.
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 a revised plan, the SNC would receive 22 out 60 seats in the new group and effectively be sidelined. The author of the plan, Syrian dissident Riad Seif, and representatives of the SNC and other opposition groups met in a Doha hotel to try to hammer out an agreement.
Seif said he expected a decision on his plan by Friday. He said he was “very optimistic” it would win approval and that most Syrians would be satisfied with the new leadership. Seif said the international community’s promises to the new group included setting up a fund worth billions of dollars and international recognition.
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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose government has remained one of Syria’s most loyal and powerful allies, criticized the West for supporting the opposition, saying foreign powers should try to force both sides to stop fighting. Russia has shielded Damascus from strong international action at the U.N. Security Council.
He said Moscow would not support any resolution that would threaten the Syrian regime with sanctions. The remarks were posted on his ministry’s website Thursday.
“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. “Bashar Assad isn’t going anywhere and will never leave, no matter what they say. He can’t be persuaded to take that step.”
Assad has rarely appeared in public since the revolt began in March 2011. Last month, state TV showed him attending prayers for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in Al-Afram Mosque in the Al-Muhajireen district of Damascus, sitting on the floor and praying.
In several televised speeches this year, Assad has blamed the uprising on a foreign plot to destroy Syria and accused rebels of being mercenaries of the West and Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The daily death toll in the civil war has been averaging 100 people or more recently, killed in clashes between rebels and troops, and in artillery shelling and regime airstrikes on rebel-held areas.
At least 104 people were killed in fighting on Wednesday, according to the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Most of the dead – 31 people – were killed in the fighting between rebels and government troops in the suburbs of Damascus as the rebels made a new push into the capital, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory’s chief.
The Observatory said it has received reports of fresh fighting in the Damascus suburbs and in the neighborhood of Souseh in the capital on Thursday. It also said there were heavy clashes in northern Idlib province and in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city which has been a major front in the civil war since the summer.
Regime forces also battled opposition fighters trying to take control of a region in the far northeastern corner of the country, Turkey’s state-run agency reported. Two people in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar were wounded by stray bullets from the fighting.
The clashes broke out in the town of Ras al-Ayn in al-Hasaka province in northeastern Syria, a few hundred meters (yards) from Ceylanpinar, the Anadolu Agency said.
The mayor for Ceylanpinar told The Associated Press that the rebels had taken over the border crossing of Ras al-Ayn on Thursday. Ismail Aslan said in a phone interview that the rebel flag was flying on a building across the Turkish border. However, fierce fighting between rebels and government troops continued around what Asalan said was an “intelligence building” on the Syrian side of the border where the regime troops had retreated to.
Around 5,000 Syrians from Ras al-Ayn crossed into Ceylanpinar Thursday to escape the fighting and at least 14 Syrians were being treated for injuries in hospitals around the region, Aslan said.
More than 111,000 Syrians are being sheltered in refugee camps in Turkey.
Turkish authorities also inspected the cargo of a Syria-bound plane from Armenia to make sure it was not carrying military equipment.
In Geneva, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, said the downward spiral in violence since the summer makes it impossible for the organization to cope with some of Syria’s humanitarian needs. He also said there has been no “major progress” on gaining better access to prisoners.
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