- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

JERUSALEM — Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to crush opposition “terrorists” with an “iron fist” Tuesday, refusing to step down amid growing international criticism of his deadly response to a nearly 10-month-old uprising against his regime.

In his first speech since June, the Syrian strongman promised fresh reforms and a referendum on a new constitution. But he said that foreign conspirators had caused Syria’s unrest, in which the United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 civilians have died since March.

“The external conspiracy is clear to everybody,” Mr. Assad said during a two-hour, televised speech at Damascus University in Syria.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland asserted that it is time for Mr. Assad to “step aside,” but stressed that the U.S. is “not dictating how this needs to go forward.”

“We’re simply saying that, in terms of our confidence that he can lead his country in a better direction, that’s over,” Ms. Nuland said.

France’s foreign minister said Mr. Assad’s speech incited violence and was not based on reality. “It is a speech at odds with what one might expect. It incites violence and confrontation between the parties. It’s a sort of denial of reality,” Alain Juppe said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimated that an additional 400 people have been killed in Syria since the Arab League sent observers there last month to monitor the Assad regime’s implementation of a league-sponsored peace plan.

In his speech, Mr. Assad accused member states of the Arab League, which has suspended Syria, of hypocrisy.

“Their situation is like that of a doctor who tells people not to smoke while he has a cigarette in his mouth,” he said.

The Arab League’s observer mission in the country will issue a report on Jan. 19.

On Tuesday, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said he held the Assad regime “totally responsible” for recent attacks on the league’s observers. He said he rejected “any attempt to undermine the mission,” whether from the government or the opposition.

Syrians are increasingly regarding the Arab League’s mission as a failure.

In a news conference Tuesday in Istanbul, Burhan Ghalioun, a leader of the Syrian National Council, said Mr. Assad’s speech “undercut any Arab or non-Arab initiative to find a political solution to the crisis.”

Mr. Ghalioun urged the Arab League to refer Syria to the U.N. Security Council.

In recent weeks, he and other opposition leaders have spoken in favor of foreign military action, though few expect a Libya-like operation anytime soon.

“The good news is that the political arm of the Syrian opposition is now unequivocally in favor of military intervention,” said Michael Weiss, author of an opposition-backed report that advocates the creation of a safe area and no-fly zone in northwestern Syria.

“The problem [is] they’ve yet to form an official partnership with the Free Syrian Army and the unaffiliated rebel brigades with a clearly articulated chain of command,” said Mr. Weiss, communications director for the nonprofit Henry Jackson Society, which promotes democracy movements.

The Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors from the country’s military, have put up armed resistance to protect civilians from the Assad regime’s crackdown.

As the conflict in Syria has continued to boil, regional power players have voiced fresh concern that the situation could deteriorate.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that “the situation that has emerged there is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented.”

In Syria, the bulk of the opposition to Mr. Assad comes from the country’s Sunni Arab majority.

Mr. Assad retains solid support from his fellow Alawites, who constitute about 12 percent of the population, and from Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population and fear the fate of besieged Christian communities in Iraq and Egypt should Mr. Assad fall.

In Israel, where the Arab Spring has been viewed with suspicion, many think that Mr. Assad’s ouster could deal a blow to the Iranians while cutting the supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces chief Gen. Benny Gantz said the turmoil could cause Mr. Assad to attack Israel.

Assad and the Syrian regime may have a hard time acting against us in the short term, but we also need to take into account that Syria has advanced weapons systems,” Gen. Gantz told a legislative committee, noting the regime’s possession of anti-ship cruise missiles.

Mr. Assad referenced Israel in his speech during his criticism of the Arab League’s efforts to isolate him.

“We have been working for years to create an office to boycott Israel,” he said, “but in [recent] weeks they did it against Syria. Are they swapping Israel for Syria?”

c Guy Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.

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