Syria’s Assad says intervention will burn region

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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad has warned against Western intervention in his country’s 7-month-old uprising, saying such action would trigger an “earthquake” that “would burn the whole region.”

Mr. Assad’s comments, published in an interview with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, were made against a backdrop of growing calls from anti-regime protesters for a no-fly zone over Syria and increasingly frequent clashes between government troops and army defectors, which left at least 30 troops dead late Saturday.

Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” Mr. Assad said. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”

Mr. Assad’s remarks appeared to reflect his regime’s increasing concern about foreign intervention in the country’s crisis after the recent death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was toppled by a popular uprising backed by NATO airstrikes.

Syrian opposition leaders have not called for an armed uprising like the one in Libya and have for the most part opposed foreign intervention, and the U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil. But with the 7-month-old revolt against Mr. Assad at a stalemate, some Syrian protesters have begun calling for a no-fly zone over the country because of fears the regime might use its air force now that army defectors are becoming more active in fighting the security forces.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a clash Saturday night in the restive central city of Homs between soldiers and gunmen believed to be army defectors left at least 20 soldiers dead and 53 wounded. It also said gunmen ambushed a bus carrying security officers late Saturday in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing at least 10 security agents. One attacker was also killed.

The Associated Press could not verify the activist’s accounts. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground. Syria‘s state-run news agency, SANA, said seven members of the military and police who were killed in Homs and the suburbs of Damascus were buried Sunday.

The unrest in Syria could send unsettling ripples through the region, as Damascus’ web of alliances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement, the militant Palestinian Hamas and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.

Aware of those concerns at home and abroad, Mr. Assad said “any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”

The uprising against the Syrian regime began during a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The United Nations says that Mr. Assad’s crackdown has left more than 3,000 people dead since the uprising began in mid-March.

Facing an unprecedented threat to his rule, Mr. Assad is desperate to show that only he can guarantee security in a troubled region where failed states abound.

In a show of support for Mr. Assad’s regime, thousands of Syrians carrying the nation’s flag and Assad posters rallied Sunday in a major square in the southern city of Sweida, some 70 miles south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border. There have been two similar massive pro-Assad demonstrations in recent days in the capital, Damascus, and the coastal city of Latakia.

Mr. Assad said that Western countries “are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely.” He was apparently referring to a wave of sanctions that were imposed by the European Union and the United States.

“But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different,” Mr. Assad said.

The Syrian president described the uprising as a “struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism.” He was referring to his ruling Baath party’s secular ideology and the Muslim Brotherhood, which was crushed by his regime in 1982.

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