- 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.

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