BEIRUT — In his first speech since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to respond to threats against him with an “iron hand” and refused to step down, insisting he still has his people’s support despite a 10-month-old revolt.
Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy is behind the unrest — not true reform-seekers — and he blamed the news media for fabrications.
“Our priority now is to regain security in which we basked for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,” Assad said in a nearly two-hour speech to a cheering crowd packed with well-dressed supporters at Damascus University. “We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country.”
By turns defiant and threatening, Assad has refused to give in to the most serious threat to his family’s 40-year dynasty in Syria. He showed a steely confidence in his speech even as opposition forces said he was dangerously out of touch.
Assad, 46, also lashed out at the Arab League, saying the Cairo-based bloc failed to protect Arab interests. The League has suspended Syria and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Assad agreed to on Dec. 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
“The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests,” Assad said. “We shouldn’t be surprised it’s failed today.”
Kuwait’s official news agency KUNA reported that a group of Arab League observers was attacked by “unknown protesters” in the northern city of Latakia on Monday and two Kuwaiti army officers were lightly injured.
Online footage posted by activists showed what appears to be a white Arab League vehicle swarmed by Assad supporters in Latakia, some of them dancing on top of the car. Another video shows an Arab League vehicle, battered and with deflated tires, struggling to drive as demonstrators surround it, shouting Assad’s nickname “Abu Hafez,” meaning father of Hafez.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby held the Syrian government responsible for ensuring the safety of its observers. But in a statement the League blamed both the government and the opposition forces for the attacks.
The violence is “an attempt to foil its mission, which is to solve the Syrian crisis,” he said.
Also Tuesday, activists said Syrian security forces shot dead at least 10 people in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour despite the presence of an Arab observer mission in the area.
The president has made only four public speeches since the anti-government uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. The regime’s crackdown on dissent has killed thousands and led to international isolation and sanctions.
Tuesday’s speech differed little from his previous appearances, in that Assad struck a more defiant tone and reiterated claims of conspiracy and promises of reform.
Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House, said the speech was “a pretense of strength” while distributing blame for Syria’s problems on everyone else.
“His excessive discussion of details on so-called reforms, followed by details on the so-called conspiracy, is a desperate attempt to convince Syrians that the regime will survive what it describes as a crisis,” she said. “He hopes revolutionaries — who he equated with terrorists during the entire speech — will simply give up and go home.”
Assad inherited power 11 years ago from his father and has adopted tactics similar to those of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down popular uprisings by offering claims of conspiracy while unleashing crackdowns on their people.
The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime. But Syria’s conflict has gone on far longer, and the death toll is mounting.
“We will declare victory soon,” Assad said. “When I leave this post, it will be also based upon the people’s wishes,” he added.
Regime opponents denounced the speech.
“The speech didn’t bring anything new that could end the crisis and its repercussions,” said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure in Syria.
“Assad talked once again about foreign conspiracy and claimed the Arab League is a cover for a foreign intervention without pointing out that the Arab League wants, through its plan, to protect the Syrian people,” he said.
Another Syria-based activist was dismayed at what he said was a rambling speech.
“Bashar is completely removed from reality, as if he is talking about a country other than Syria,” said the man who identified himself by his nickname, Abu Hamza, because of fear of reprisals.
Also Tuesday, Assad accused hundreds of media outlets of working against Syria and claimed an interview he gave to Barbara Walters last month was altered. He was widely criticized for the interview, in which denied he ordered the deadly crackdown.
Assad accused the ABC network of “professional fabrication.”
Since the start of the uprising, Assad has blamed a conspiracy and media fabrications for the unrest — allegations that the opposition and most observers dismiss. The regime has banned most foreign news outlets and prevented independent reporting.
“They failed, but they have not given up,” he said of the media outlets.
In recent months, Syria’s conflict has turned increasingly violent as army defectors turn their weapons on the regime and some protesters take up arms to protect themselves.
Syria agreed in December to an Arab League-brokered plan that calls for an end to the military crackdown on protesters, but killings have continued.
About 165 Arab League monitors are in Syria to determine whether the regime is abiding by the plan to stop violence and pull heavy weapons out of the cities.
The U.N. estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,000 people have been killed since March. Since that report, opposition activists say hundreds more have died.
Adnan al-Khudeir, head of the Cairo operations room that the monitors report to, said more observers will head to Syria in the coming days and the delegation should reach 200. He said the mission then will expand its work in Syria to reach the eastern province of Deir el-Zour and predominantly Kurdish areas to the northeast.
Assad also said he was implementing reforms and that a referendum on a new constitution should be held in March. As it stands now, the constitution enshrines his Baath party as the leader of the state.
But Assad emphasized the measures are not coming because of pressure from the crisis.
“If reform is forced, it will fail,” he said. “Reform for us is the natural path.”