Assad warns West to keep out of Syria

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad rejects calls from the United States and Europe to step down and warns that military intervention would have 'huge consequences'.

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Damascus // Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, last night rejected calls from the United States and Europe to stand aside and warned military intervention would have "huge consequences", in a defiant speech to the nation, his fourth since a popular uprising began in March.

Speaking to state-run television in a pre-recorded interview, he brushed aside demands from hundreds of thousands of anti-regime demonstrators and western nations that he step down, saying he was "appointed by the Syrian people".

"I'm not to discuss these words [about resignation], these words are not to be said to a president who isn't appointed by the West or America, I'm appointed by the Syrian people," he said.

He bluntly warned against military intervention and said that foreign powers did not fully understand Syria's military capabilities to repel an assault.

"Any action against Syria will have huge consequences that they [the attackers] will not be able to tolerate," he said, referring to the drawn-out insurgency that US troops faced having invaded neighbouring Iraq.

Insisting he had always been pursuing a political solution to the five-month old crisis - and that politics was the only way to deal with it - Mr Al Assad said a long-promised constitutional review would take between three and eight months and tentatively scheduled parliamentary elections for February 2012. He did not give a firm commitment to scrapping article 8, the clause that guarantees a Baath party monopoly on power.

"It is just a more of the same old game. They are buying time and not reforming," said one pro-democracy activist. "Two months ago we were promised elections in August and democracy by the end of the year. Now they are kicking it further down the road. Assad still can't even say that Article 8 will go. It's still all so vague it's empty."

Mr Al Assad acknowledged economic pressures but said the situation had, in fact, improved in recent months and said the government would "look east" in order to replace any trade lost to EU sanctions. He asked Syrians to continue living their ordinary lives, and to keep buying and selling in local markets.

Europe was considering imposing a ban this week on purchasing Syrian oil, in a major escalation of economic sanctions that have thus far targeted specific regime officials.

Although no direct reference was made to tank-backed military assaults on a series of Syrian towns - human-rights groups say that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed by security forces since March - Mr Al Assad said his security units had made "achievements".

"I'm not concerned at all, we can deal with the situation," he said.

In response to a question about international criticism of Syria's human-rights record, he said the west had no right to lecture Damascus because it was committing grave abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporting Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.

A United Nations humanitarian-assessment team arrived in Syria yesterday, after months in which officials had been denied access. Last week UN human-rights chiefs issued a report in which they said there was compelling evidence of security forces having a shoot-to-kill policy against unarmed protesters, of summary executions of prisoners, murder of children and torture of detainees. Rights groups estimate that some 20,000 demonstrators remain in detention without trial.

The Syrian authorities insist they were facing a militant campaign by armed Islamic extremists, rather than a largely peaceful popular uprising.

Mr Al Assad had previously pledged to hold security force members guilty of crime accountable for any offenses, a promise he repeated yesterday, although he said the matter was in the hands of a judicial committee, not in his.

To date, no security official has been charged with any crime, according to Syrian lawyers. Some security figures have been transferred to different jobs, however, in response to public demands for accountability.

"The key message of the speech was to the west," said an independent political analyst in Damascus, on condition of anonymity. "Assad wanted to tell them he will not leave without a fight and that if they want a fight, they will suffer throughout the region, it was a clear threat the battle lines have been drawn."

Correction: This article was amended on August 23, 2011 to correct the date of scheduled parliamentary elections.