BEIRUT – A defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad rallied a chanting and cheering crowd Sunday to fight the uprising against his authoritarian rule, dismissing any chance of dialogue with “murderous criminals” that he blames for nearly two years of violence that has left 60,000 dead.
In his first public speech in six months, Assad laid out terms for a peace plan that keeps himself in power, ignoring international demands to step down and pledging to continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left” in Syria.
“What we started will not stop,” he said, standing at a lectern on stage at the regal Opera House in central Damascus – a sign by the besieged leader that he sees no need to hide or compromise even with the violent civil war closing in on his seat of power in the capital.
The theater was packed with his supporters who interrupted the speech with applause, cheers and occasional fist-waving chants, including “God, Bashar and Syria!”
The overtures that Assad offered – a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution – were reminiscent of symbolic changes and concessions offered previously in the uprising that began in March 2011. Those were rejected at the time as too little, too late.
The government last year adopted a constitution that theoretically allows political parties to compete with Assad’s ruling Baath Party. It carried out parliamentary elections that were boycotted by his opponents.
Assad demanded that regional and Western countries must stop funding and arming the rebels trying to overthrow him.
“We never rejected a political solution ... but with whom should we talk? With those who have an extremist ideology, who only understand the language of terrorism? “Or should we negotiate with puppets whom the West brought?” he asked.
“We negotiate with the master, not with the slave,” he answered.
As in previous speeches and interviews, he clung to the view that the crisis was a foreign-backed plot and not an uprising against him and his family’s decades-long rule.
“Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals,” he said.
He stressed the presence of religious extremists among those fighting in Syria, calling them “terrorists who carry the ideology of al-Qaida” and “servants who know nothing but the language of slaughter.”
He said the fighters sought to transform the country into a “jihad land.”
Although he put up a defiant front, Assad laid out the grim reality of the violence, and he spoke in front of a collage of photos of what appeared to be Syrians killed in the fighting.
“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word,” Assad said, “a war that targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. It is a war to defend the nation.”
He said Syria will take advice but not dictates from anyone — a reference to outside powers calling on him to step down.
The speech, which was denounced by the West, including the U.S. and Britain, came amid stepped-up international efforts for a peaceful way out of the Syrian conflict. Previous efforts have failed to stem the bloodshed.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Assad last month to push for a peace plan for Syria based on a plan first presented in June at an international conference in Geneva. The proposal calls for an open-ended cease-fire and the formation of a transitional government until new elections can be held and a new constitution drafted.
The opposition swiftly rejected Assad’s proposals. Those fighting to topple the regime have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than his departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.
“It is an excellent initiative that is only missing one crucial thing: His resignation,” said Kamal Labwani, a veteran dissident and member of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition umbrella group.
“All what he is proposing will happen automatically, but only after he steps down,” Labwani told The Associated Press by telephone from Sweden.
Haitham Maleh, an opposition figure in Turkey, said Assad was offering the initiative because he feels increasingly besieged by advancing rebels.
“How could he expect us to converse with a criminal, a killer, a man who does not abide by the law?” he asked.
Assad has spoken only on rare occasions since the uprising began, and Sunday’s speech was his first since June. His last public comments came in an interview in November to Russian TV in which he vowed to “live and die” in Syria.
On Sunday, he seemed equally confident in the ability of his troops to crush the rebellion despite the recent fighting in Damascus.
“He did not come across as a leader under siege, nor as a leader whose regime is on the verge of collapse,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
“He seemed determined that any political settlement must come on his terms, linking those terms with the Syrian national interest as if they are inseparable,” he said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Assad’s speech was “yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called Assad’s speech “beyond hypocritical.” In a message posted on his official Twitter feed, Hague said “empty promises of reform fool no one.”
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office said in a statement that the bloc will “look carefully if there is anything new in the speech, but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition.”
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey said the speech was filled with “empty promises” and repetitive pledges of reform by a leader out of touch with the Syrian people.
“It seems (Assad) has shut himself in his room, and for months has read intelligence reports that are presented to him by those trying to win his favor,” Davutoglu told reporters in the Aegean port city of Izmir on Sunday.
Turkey is a former ally of Damascus, and while Ankara first backed Assad after the uprising erupted, it turned against the regime after its violent crackdown on dissent.
Observers said the speech signaled the violence would continue indefinitely as long as both sides lacked the ability to score a victory on the battlefield.
Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, said Assad’s made clear he has no intention of making way for a political transition.
“He sees himself rather as an orchestrator and arbiter of a process to be organized under his control,” she said.
The Internet was cut in many parts of Damascus ahead of the address, apparently for security reasons, and some streets were closed.
At the end of his speech, loyalists shouted: “With our blood and souls we redeem you, Bashar!”
As he was leaving the hall, supporters pushed forward and swarmed around him to try to talk to him. Nervous security guards tried to push them away.
Many shouted “Shabiha forever!” — referring to the armed regime loyalists whom rebels have blamed for sectarian killings.
Amid the melee, Assad quickly shook hands with some of them and blew kisses to others.
AP writers Barbara Surk and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara and APTN journalists in Turkey and Jordan contributed to this report.