Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has outlined a new peace initiative that includes a national reconciliation conference, and the formation of a wide representative government which would then oversee new elections, a new constitution and general amnesty.
In a one-hour speech to the nation on Sunday, Assad stated that the initiative can only take roots after regional and Western countries stop funding “militant extremists” fighting to overthrow the government, The Associated Press reported.
Assad said that Syria will not take dictates from anyone, and called on his countrymen to unite against "murderous criminals" whom he said are carrying out a foreign plot seeking to tear the nation apart.
The Syrian president ignored Western demands for him to step down and said he is ready to hold a dialogue but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria." He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming the rebels first.
Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Assad told the hall packed with his supporters that "we are in a state of war. We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other."
"It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals," he added. The audience frequently broke out in cheers and applause.
Assad has rarely spoken since the unrest began in March 2011, and his speech on Sunday was his first since June.
His last public comments were in an interview in November to Russian TV in which he vowed to die in Syria. On Sunday, he seemed equally confident in Syrian troops' ability to crush the rebels.
Wearing a suit and tie, the Syrian president spoke before a collage of pictures of Syrians who have been killed since March 2011.
At the end of his speech and as he was leaving the hall, he was mobbed by a group of loyalists shouting: "With our blood and souls we redeem you, Bashar!"
The president in turn waved and blew kisses to the crowd on his way out.
Assad, in his speech, acknowledged the enormous impact of the nation's conflict, which the United Nations recent estimated had killed more than 60,000 people.
"We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy in any corner of the country in the absence of security and stability," he said. "I look at the eyes of Syria's children and I don't see any happiness."
The Internet was cut in many parts of Damascus ahead of the address, apparently for security reasons.
He stressed the presence of extremists among those fighting in Syria, calling them "terrorists who carry the ideology of Al-Qaeda" and "servants who know nothing but the language of slaughter."
The Syrian president urged his countrymen to unite to save the nation.
Outlining his peace initiative, he said: "The first part of a political solution would require regional powers to stop funding and arming (the rebels), an end to terrorism and controlling the borders."
He said this would then be followed by dialogue and a national reconciliation conference and the formation of a wide representative government which would then oversee new elections, a new constitution and general amnesty.
However, Assad made clear his offer to hold a dialogue is not open to those whom he considers extremists or carrying out a foreign agenda.
"We never rejected a political solution... but with whom should we talk? With those who have extremist ideology who only understand the language of terrorism?" he said.
"Or should we with negotiate puppets whom the West brought? ... We negotiate with the master not with the slave."
As in previous speeches and interviews, he clung to the view that the crisis in Syria was a foreign-backed agenda and said it was not an uprising against his rule.
"Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals," he said.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since mid-March 2011. Damascus says outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorists are the driving factor behind the unrest and deadly violence while the opposition accuses the security forces of being behind the killings.
Western states have been calling for Assad to step down. However, Russia and China are strongly opposed to the Western drive to oust Assad.
The Syrian government says that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the armed militants are foreign nationals.
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