CAIRO — A relaxed, defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday repeated promises of reforms and warned of "repercussions" should the West opt for military intervention in the uprising that's threatened the survival of his family's four-decade rule.
Assad's remarks during a choreographed question-and-answer session that aired live on state TV offered no major departure from the message his regime's been sending since the start of the rebellion last spring: reforms are coming soon, the uprising is the work of militants, and interference from the West is an assault on Syria's sovereignty. He said the uprising could be "controlled."
Syrian opposition activists, in interviews and through social-networking sites, immediately rejected Assad's words as hollow, and vowed to continue their efforts to unseat him. But the opposition lacks cohesion and remains divided on key issues such as whether to take up arms now that five months of peaceful demonstrations have failed to bring down — or even severely cripple — the regime.
"Although the regime is very violent towards the Syrian people, we insist the movement maintain its peaceful stand," said Louay Safi, chairman of the Syrian American Council and part of a large opposition gathering this weekend in Istanbul. "After months of suppression, there are naturally some groups on the ground who want to use arms. But we are telling them not to do that."
Human rights activists say nearly 2,000 people have died in the government's crackdown on protesters. The regime banned most independent reporting as it unleashed attacks on rebellious towns by land and sea. Thousands of Syrians fled their targeted villages and crossed into neighboring Turkey as refugees.
Assad's remarks only skirted the issue of the violent unrest in his country. Instead, he focused on proposed policy changes that would allow for freer elections, new political parties and fewer restrictions on media. He lapsed into so much jargon — speaking of mechanisms, projections, coordination — that some online activists joked that his new tactic was boring people to death.
"Nobody believes him. Everybody, including the international community, knows that he's a big liar," said Bassam Bitar, a former Syrian diplomat who's now an opposition activist based in Washington. "I am with any international intervention to save Syrian lives, including military."
No one has called for an intervention like the NATO-led campaign to back rebels fighting Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. But the United States and several European allies on Thursday called explicitly for Assad's ouster. Other Arab states also have turned up the pressure against Assad, with even the authoritarian monarchy of Saudi Arabia recalling its ambassador to protest the bloodshed.
Assad's TV interviewers — a man and a woman — addressed him as "Your Excellency." Before the session aired, state television showed archived footage of Assad greeting supporters and mingling with Syrians as if to project a "man of the people" image.
When asked about the U.S.-led calls for his removal, Assad scoffed at what he described as the hypocrisy of "these colonial states." He said the United States shouldn't lecture about human rights given the "millions" of civilian casualties from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Libya.
Assad said no amount of reform would ever be enough for the West because it seeks to create puppet rulers in the Middle East. He said the Syrian people, not the West, "appointed" him president, so he wasn't worried about the calls for his ouster.
"You can say this to a president who's made in America, or to someone waiting to receive instructions from abroad," Assad said with a smirk.
He also dismissed the new U.S. sanctions against Syria's lucrative petroleum industry, saying that Syria has endured sanctions for years and that the country was "moving toward the east," perhaps a nod to his staunchest backer, Iran.
"The international scene isn't closed anymore," Assad said.
The new U.S. sanctions aren't expected to have a severe effect; similar measures from the European Union, the chief recipient of oil exports, would be much more devastating for the regime. The EU is considering such a move, but some news reports indicate reluctance from some countries.
Turkey, Syria's once-close ally and most important trade partner, hasn't joined other nations in imposing sanctions, but it's clear that the government is losing patience with the Assad regime. The Anatolia news agency quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who made a personal appeal to Assad last week, as saying "the situation is not sustainable."
(Allam reported from Cairo. Special correspondent Ipek Yezdani reported from Istanbul.)
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