BERLIN (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he is not afraid of meeting the same fate as the deposed and disgraced leaders of Libya and Egypt, saying he has nothing in common with them.
In one of his rare interviews with Western media since the deadly uprising in Syria erupted last year, Assad brushed off a question about whether he feared for his family, including his wife and three children.
"It's a completely different situation," he told German broadcaster ARD. "What's happening in Egypt is different from what is happening in Syria ... You cannot compare," he said.
He also rejected any comparisons with Libya, where rebels helped by NATO air strikes toppled the regime. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed while fleeing advancing opposition fighters.
"Describing what happened to al Gadhafi, this is savage, this is crime," he said in the interview which was conducted in English.
The 16 months of upheaval in Syria, spurred by the Arab Spring's pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, have left well over 14,000 people dead, according to activists. They accuse the autocratic ruler of crushing legitimate protests seeking reforms by waging a war against his own people.
But in the interview, the 46-year-old Assad who has ruled Syria since taking over from his father in 2000, accused the U.S. of fueling the uprising, saying that Washington ultimately bears responsibility for the deaths of innocent civilians in the Middle Eastern nation.
The U.S. is partnering with those "terrorists ... with weapons, money or public and political support at the United Nations," Assad said. "They offer the umbrella and political support to those gangs to ... destabilize Syria."
Assad rejected responsibility of his security forces for the violence, claiming that "supporters of the government, the victims from the security and the army" far outnumber those among civilians.
Instead, he told ARD that an opposition made up of terrorists, gangs, "a mixture, an amalgam of Al Qaida (and) other extremists" is responsible for the violence.
When asked directly about the killing of more than 100 civilians in the Syrian village of Houla in May, he blamed it on gangs who "came in hundreds from outside the city."
The massacre caused an international outcry, and U.N. investigators have since concluded that Syrian government troops could be behind the killings.
Assad said a "majority of the people ask for reforms, political reforms (but) not freedom." He stressed that he still had the overall support of Syria's people, firmly ruling out stepping down.
"The president shouldn't run away from challenge and we have a national challenge now in Syria," he said.
While he said he was ready for political dialogue with the opposition, Assad left no doubt that he would fight those his government perceives as terrorists.
"But as long as you have terrorism and as long as the dialogue didn't work, you have to fight the terrorism. You cannot keep just making dialogue while they are killing your people and your army," he said.
The main obstacles to a peaceful solution to the conflict are the nations supporting the opposition, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar who send armaments, Turkey which helps with logistics and smuggling across the border and, finally, U.S. political support, he said.
The interview, the third Assad has given to a Western news organization since last year, was conducted Thursday in a government guest house in Damascus and recorded by Syria's state television, according to ARD.
The interview for ARD's foreign policy program Weltspiegel was conducted by Juergen Todenhoefer, a former media executive and lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party. He has published a number of books and essays on Islam, the war against terror in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, and on Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Todenhoefer asked Assad how Syria would react to a military intervention, the Syrian leader vowed to stand up to the attackers.
"Whether you're prepared or not, you've got to defend your country, but you have to be prepared," he said.
In a show of force, Syria began large-scale military exercises Sunday to simulate defending the country against outside "aggression."
Some in Syria's fractured opposition have appealed to the West for foreign forces to step in to stop the bloodshed, but Western nations are reluctant to intervene in Syria in part because unlike the military intervention that helped bring down Gadhafi in Libya, the Syrian conflict has the potential to quickly escalate.
Damascus has a web of allegiances to powerful forces including Shiite powerhouse Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah and there are concerns that a military campaign could pull them into a wider conflagration.
Damascus' staunchest ally, Iran, meanwhile, warned Sunday of a "catastrophe" in the region if no political solution to the Syrian conflict is found.
And Syria's other main partner, Russia, has over the past months prevented the U.N. Security Council from adopting tougher measures.
U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, who is the architect of an international plan to end the crisis, acknowledged in an interview published Saturday that the international community's efforts to find a political solution to the escalating violence in Syria have failed. Annan arrived in the Syrian capital Sunday for talks with Assad, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jbaetz
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|