Assad warns crackdown will continue

 

Syria's president Bashar Assad has said he will respond to threats against him with an "iron hand" and refused to step down, despite the 10-month-old uprising against him.

In his first speech since June, Mr Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy and terrorists are behind the unrest - not true reform-seekers.

"Our priority now is to regain security which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand," Mr Assad said in a nearly two-hour speech at Damascus University.

"We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."

Mr Assad also criticised the Arab League, saying it failed to protect Arab interests. The League has suspended Syria and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Mr Assad agreed to on December 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.

"The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests," Mr Assad said. "We shouldn't be surprised it's failed today."

Meanwhile a group of Arab League observers were attacked in the northern city of Latakia and two Kuwaiti army officers were lightly injured.

Video footage posted by activists online shows what appears to be a white Arab League vehicle swarmed by pro-Assad protesters in Latakia, some of them dancing on top of the car.

The president has made only four public speeches since the anti-government uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. The regime's crackdown on dissent has killed thousands and led to international isolation and sanctions.

The latest speech differed little from his previous appearances, in that Mr Assad struck a more defiant tone and reiterated claims of conspiracy and promises of reform.

Mr Assad, 46, inherited power 11 years ago from his father and has adopted tactics similar to those of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by offering claims of conspiracy while unleashing a crackdown on their people.

"We will declare victory soon," Mr Assad said. "When I leave this post, it will be also based upon the people's wishes," he added.

Regime opponents denounced the speech.

"The speech didn't bring anything new that could end the crisis and its repercussions," said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure in Syria.

"Mr Assad talked once again about foreign conspiracy and that the Arab League is a cover for a foreign intervention without pointing out that the Arab League wants, through its plan, to protect the Syrian people," he said.

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