- Associated Press - Sunday, January 6, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — President Bashar Assad called on Syrians to defend their country against religious extremists seeking to destroy the nation, dismissing any prospect of dialogue with the “murderous criminals” he says are behind the uprising even as he outlined his vision for a peaceful settlement to the civil war.

In a one-hour speech to the nation in which he appeared confident and relaxed, Mr. Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria.”

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow him first.

Syria’s opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, repeatedly have said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

“It is an excellent initiative that is only missing one crucial thing: his resignation,” said Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident and member of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition umbrella group.

“All what he is proposing will happen automatically, but only after he steps down,” Mr. Labwani told The Associated Press by telephone from Sweden.

On top of that, Mr. Assad‘s new initiative is reminiscent of symbolic changes and concessions that his government made earlier in the uprising, which were rejected at the time as too little too late.

Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Mr. Assad told the hall packed with supporters — who frequently broke out in cheers and applause — that “we are in a state of war.”

“We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other,” he said. “It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals.”

Mr. Assad rarely has spoken since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011, and Sunday’s speech was his first since June. His last public comments came in an interview in November to Russian TV, in which he vowed to die in Syria.

On Sunday, he seemed equally confident in his troops’ ability to crush the rebels fighting his rule, even as they edge in closer than ever to his seat of power, Damascus.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Mr. Assad‘s speech was “beyond hypocritical.” In a message posted on his official Twitter feed, Mr. Hague said “empty promises of reform fool no one.”

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office said in a statement that the bloc will “look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Mr. Assad’s speech was filled with “empty promises” and repetitive pledges of reform by a president who appeared out of touch with the reality of the Syrian people.

“It seems (Assad) has shut himself in his room and for months has read intelligence reports that are presented to him by those trying to win his favor,” Mr. Davutoglu told reporters in the Aegean port city of Izmir, Turkey, on Sunday.

Story Continues →