Assad: 'I will live and die in Syria'
In an interview broadcast on Russian television, the Syrian president said he would not leave the country to end the conflict there, despite British offers of safe passage if he did so.
| Beirut, Lebanon
Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed defiantly to "live and die" in Syria, saying in an interview broadcast Thursday that he will never flee his country despite the bloody, 19-month-old uprising against him.
The broadcast comes two days after British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Mr. Assad could be allowed safe passage out of the country if that would guarantee an end to the civil war, which activists estimate has killed more than 36,000 people.
"I am not a puppet, I was not made by the West for me to go to the West or any other country," Assad said in the interview with the English-language Russia Today TV. He spoke in English and excerpts of the interview were posted on the station's website Thursday with an Arabic voiceover.
"I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria," he said.
Assad also warned against foreign military intervention at a time when the West is taking steps to boost the opposition.
"I don't think the West is headed in this direction. But if it does, nobody can predict the consequences," he told the station. The full interview will be broadcast on Friday, the station said.
The excerpts show Assad casually talking and later walking with RT's reporter outside a house, wearing a gray suit and tie. It was not clear where the interview took place.
The uprising against Assad's regime began as mostly peaceful protests in March last year but quickly morphed into a civil war. The fighting has taken on grim sectarian tones, with the predominantly Sunni rebels fighting government forces. Assad's regime is dominated by minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cameron announced Britain will deal directly with Syrian rebel military leaders. He spoke during a trip to visit Syrian refugees in Jordan. Previously, Britain and the US have acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures – some connected to rebel forces – inside Syria.
He called on the US to join his country in doing more to shape the Syrian opposition into a coherent force, saying the reelection of President Barack Obama is an opportunity for the world to take stronger action to end the deadlocked civil war.
Washington has been pressing for a new, more unified opposition leadership that will minimize the role of exiles and better represent those risking their lives on the front lines. The initiative was being discussed Thursday at an opposition conference in the Qatari capital of Doha.
The meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, both leading backers of the Syrian rebels, as well as Western diplomats and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby. On the table is a proposal to set up a new leadership team that would become the conduit for international support to rebel-held areas in Syria. The US has suggested that the main group in exile, the Syrian National Council, can no longer claim a key leadership role and must make way for those representing activists inside Syria.
Under the plan, the SNC would receive only 15 of 50 seats in the new group and effectively be sidelined. The author of the plan, Syrian dissident Riad Seif, SNC leaders and other opposition groups were meeting in a Doha hotel to try to hammer out an agreement.
Further down the road, the international community hopes for negotiations on a political transition between the opposition and those in the Assad regime who were not involved in bloodshed and corruption. The opposition has agreed to such talks, in principle, but said it could take many more months of a war of attrition before Assad is ready to leave Syria.
Assad has rarely appeared in public since the revolt began in March 2011. Last month, state TV showed him attending prayers for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in Al-Afram Mosque in the Al-Muhajireen district of Damascus, sitting on the floor and praying.
In several televised speeches this year, Assad has blamed the uprising on a foreign plot to destroy Syria and accused rebels of being mercenaries of the West and Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar.