Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public speech Sunday, again calling for a political solution to the civil war while denouncing opposition forces as “terrorists.”
In his first national speech since June, Mr. Assad told a crowd of loyalists at the Damascus Opera House that he is prepared to hold a national reconciliation conference as part of a political process towards elections and a new constitution. But he said the talks would exclude anyone who he says “betrayed Syria.”
He said Syria is at war with its “enemies” and denied facing a popular revolution.
Mr. Assad repeated his longstanding description of the rebels as al-Qaida terrorists bent on tearing up the country. He demanded that Western and regional powers stop funding and arming them. He also dismissed the exiled Syrian opposition coalition as a Western puppet.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the Assad plan for a reconciliation conference is “detached from reality” and, she said, another attempt to cling to power.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused the Syrian president of making “empty promises of reform” that “fool no one.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the Syrian president “does not have a plan for the future” and cannot make progress by “denying the existence” of the Syrian opposition.
Opposition coalition members repeated their demand for Mr. Assad to leave power as a condition for talks. They have long dismissed his offers of political concessions as too little, too late.
In the speech, Mr. Assad lamented the destruction caused by the civil war, saying there is “no joy while security and stability are absent” on Syrian streets. His loyalist audience frequently interrupted him with chants of “with our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you” and mobbed him as he left the stage.
The United Nations has estimated that at least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, when President Assad began suppressing what started as peaceful pro-democracy protests. The protests evolved into an armed rebellion aimed at ending the Assad family's four-decade authoritarian rule.