Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made a rare public speech reiterating support for a political solution to his country's civil war, while also denouncing opposition forces as “terrorists” and urging his people to fight them.
In his first national address since last June, Mr. Assad appeared at the Damascus Opera House on Sunday, telling a crowd of loyalists that he is prepared to hold a national reconciliation conference as part of a political process leading to a new constitution and elections. But, he said such a dialogue would exclude anyone that has “betrayed Syria,” as he put it.
President Assad looked confident in his one-hour speech, even as the rebellion against him entered its 22nd month. 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 and demanded that Western and regional powers stop funding and arming them. He also dismissed the exiled Syrian opposition coalition as a Western puppet. The Syrian president urged his people to unite behind his campaign to crush the revolt.
Mr. Assad's remarks drew scorn from Syrian opposition figures and their regional and Western allies.
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.
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.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague rejected Mr. Assad's comments as “beyond hypocritical.” In a message on his Twitter feed, Hague accused the Syrian president of making “empty promises of reform” that “fool no one.”
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.