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Assad ends silence but defiant

- Syrian President calls rivals ‘murderous criminals’, refuses to quit

Beirut, Jan. 6: President Bashar al-Assad proposed today what he called a plan to resolve the Syria’s 21-month uprising with a new constitution and cabinet, sounding defiant, confident and, to critics, out of touch with the magnitude of his people’s grievances.

But he offered no new acknowledgement of the gains by the rebels fighting against him, the excesses of his government or the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Assad also ruled out talks with the armed Opposition and pointedly ignored its central demand that he step down, instead using much of a nearly hour-long speech to justify his harsh military crackdown.

Assad waved to a cheering, chanting crowd as he strode to the stage of the Damascus Opera House in the central Umayyad Square — where residents said security forces had been deployed heavily the night before.

In his first public speech since June 2012, he repeated his long-standing assertions that the movement against him was driven by “murderous criminals” and terrorists receiving financing from abroad, and he appeared to push back hard against recent international efforts to broker a compromise.

“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,” he said.

His speech came a week after the UN and Arab League envoy on Syria, the senior Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, visited Damascus, the capital, in a push for a negotiated solution.

“Who should we negotiate with? Terrorists?” Assad asked. “We will negotiate with their masters.”

Assad’s speech was a disappointment for international mediators and many Syrians who say they believe that without a negotiated settlement, Syria’s conflict will descend into an even bloodier stage.

The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have died in what began as a peaceful protest movement and transformed into armed struggle after security forces fired on demonstrators.

Rebels have made gains in the north and east of Syria and in the Damascus suburbs, but Assad’s government has pushed back with devastating airstrikes and artillery bombardments and appears confident that it can hold the capital. Neither side appears ready to give up the prospect of a military victory.

The tenor of Assad’s speech is likely to raise the question of whether Brahimi’s mission serves any purpose; there was no immediate comment from him or his staff.

Assad’s opponents rejected the proposal as meaningless, sticking to their longstanding demand that the President resign as a precondition to negotiations.

 
 
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