Syria Crisis: President Assad Blames 'External Conspiracy' For Violent Protests In Rare Speech
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has blamed an "external conspiracy" for the increasingly violent pro-democracy protests that have spread across the country since March.
In a rare speech lasting more than 80 minutes and broadcast live from Damascus University, Assad said that "terrorism" would be met with an "iron fist".
The "external conspiracy is clear to everybody" he said according to the BBC.
"Regional and international sides have tried to destabilise the country ... Our priority now is to regain [the] security [in] which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand."
"We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."
According to the UN more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in Syria since the protests began 10 months ago. Many more have been injured or arrested by the regime.
The crisis has deepened recently since deserters from the army have begun joining the opposition movement, leading to greater instances of violence in what was once a universally peaceful series of protests.
Assad's regime insists that they are fighting armed terrorist groups, not protesters. It says about 2,000 members of security forces have been slain in the fighting.
In his speech Assad rejected claims that government forces were openly firing on peaceful protesters. He said that no orders had been given to put down protests with violence.
"There is no order from any level about opening fire on any citizen," he said. "According to the law, nobody should open fire - only in self-defence or during a clash with an armed person."
He added that the protests had been whipped up by foreign media and governments.
Assad also refused to step down, saying that he would only leave office when every Syrian wanted him to and that reforms, such as moving to a multi-party system, would not be brought in prematurely.
"We should link what happened before the crisis and post crisis and then embark on reform... We shouldn't build our reforms on this crisis," he said.
Assad said that a referendum could be held in March for a new constitution, with elections in May or June.
"When I leave office it will be by the will of the people," he said according to Al Jazeera.
A team of 165 observers from the Arab League have been in Syria as part of effort to monitor the withdrawal of armed forces from civilian areas.
However the mission has been criticised by those who say they are ignoring clear violations by security forces. It is also argued that Syria is too big to be adequately monitored by such a small team.
"We were surprised Arabs did not stand with Syria," Assad said, in pointed criticism of the Arab League. However he said the country "would not close its doors" to a solution as long as it respected Syria's sovereignty.
He added that the Arab League members had no right to criticise Syria for its democratic failings.
"The first parliament in Syria was in 1917. Where were they then?" he asked.
"Their situation is like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to give up smoking while he, the doctor, has a cigarette in his mouth."