BEIRUT—A defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad rallied a 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 theatre 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 reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution — were reminiscent of concessions offered previously in the uprising that began in March 2011. Those were rejected 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 many.
Assad demanded that other 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.
“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 Qaeda” and “servants who know nothing but the language of slaughter.”