Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has warned that Western action against his country would cause an “earthquake” that would “burn the whole region”.
In his first interview with a Western journalist since Syria‘s seven-month uprising began, President Assad told The Sunday Telegraph that intervention against his regime could cause “another Afghanistan”.
Western countries “are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely,” he said. “But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different.
“Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?
“Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”
Thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets in two Syrian cities on Friday to demand the imposition of a Libyan-style no-fly zone over the country. According to the United Nations, at least 3,000 civilians, including 187 children, have been killed during protests against the regime. Thousands more have been imprisoned. The government says 1,200 members of the security forces have also died.
President Assad admitted that “many mistakes” had been made by his forces in the early part of the uprising, but insisted that only “terrorists” were now being targeted.
“We have very few police, only the army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda,” he said. “If you sent in your army to the streets, the same thing would happen. Now, we are only fighting terrorists. That’s why the fighting is becoming much less.”
On Friday alone, however, opposition groups claimed that 40 people were killed by the regime, and government troops shelled a district of Homs, a centre of opposition.
Seventeen soldiers also died in overnight clashes with suspected army deserters in the city, which foreign journalists are forbidden to enter.
Syria was condemned yesterday by Arab League foreign ministers for its “continued killings of civilians”.
The number of protesters appeared to fall earlier this month, but has increased again after the death of Col Gaddafi gave opposition groups new heart. A general strike affected much of the southern part of the country.
President Assad insisted that he had responded differently to the Arab Spring than other, deposed Arab leaders. “We didn’t go down the road of stubborn government,” he said. “Six days after [the protests began] I commenced reform. People were sceptical that the reforms were an opiate for the people, but when we started announcing the reforms, the problems started decreasing e_SLps This is when the tide started to turn. This is when people started supporting the government.”
Some Damascus-based opposition leaders say the reforms, which include laws ostensibly allowing demonstrations and political parties, are a start, but not enough. However, the leaders of the main protests say they are meaningless and President Assad must go.
“The problem with the government is that their dialogue is shallow and just a tool to gain time,” said Kadri Jamil, of Kassioun, a Damascus-based opposition group. “They have to act to begin real dialogue because the security solution has failed. We have one to two months before we pass the point of no return.”
One Homs-based opposition activist said: “Killing people is not an act of reform. We aren’t calling for economic or even political reform under Assad, but for the departure of this bloodstained president and free elections.”
President Assad said: “The pace of reform is not too slow. The vision needs to be mature. It would take only 15 seconds to sign a law, but if it doesn’t fit your society, you’ll have division … It’s a very complicated society.”
He described the uprising as a “struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism [secularism], adding: “We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them.”
In interviews in Damascus, some without government minders, secular Syrians and members of the country’s substantial Christian and Alawite minorities said they supported the Assad regime for fear of their positions under a new government. Those attending a large demonstration in support of the regime last Wednesday did not appear to be coerced, according to independent observers.
However, interviews, even some with minders present, revealed widespread and vocal discontent over corruption and living standards.