U.S.: Assad "detached from reality"

BEIRUT The United States and its Western allies denounced a rare address made by Syrian President Bashar Assad Sunday, in which the dictator offered a new constitution but dismissed any prospect of dialogue with the "murderous criminals" he says are behind the country's uprising.

The U.S. State Department said the speech was "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people's goal of political transition." In a statement, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad's initiative was "detached from reality."

In a one-hour speech to the nation in which he appeared confident and relaxed, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down while saying he is ready to hold a dialogue to reach a peaceful settlement to the civil war -- but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria."

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution, but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow him first. He also called on Syrians to defend their country against Islamic extremists seeking to destroy the nation.

Syria's opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president's departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

"It is an excellent initiative that is only missing one crucial thing: His resignation," said Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident and member of the opposition's Syrian National Coalition umbrella group.

"All what he is proposing will happen automatically, but only after he steps down," Labwani told The Associated Press by telephone from Sweden.

On top of that, Assad's new initiative is reminiscent of symbolic changes and concessions that his government made earlier in the uprising, which were rejected at the time as too little too late.

Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Assad told the hall packed with supporters -- who frequently broke out in cheers and applause -- that "we are in a state of war."

"We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other," he said. "It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals."

Assad has rarely spoken since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011, and Sunday's speech was his first since June. His last public comments came in an interview in November to Russian TV in which he vowed to die in Syria.

On Sunday, he seemed equally confident in his troops' ability to crush the rebels fighting his rule, even as they edge in closer than ever to his seat of power, Damascus.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad's speech was "beyond hypocritical." In a message posted on his official Twitter feed, Hague said "empty promises of reform fool no one."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's office said in a statement that the bloc will "look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition."

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Assad's speech was filled with "empty promises" and repetitive pledges of reform by a president appeared out of touch with reality of the Syrian people.

"It seems (Assad) has shut himself in his room, and for months has read intelligence reports that are presented to him by those trying to win his favor," Davutoglu told reporters in the Aegean port city of Izmir on Sunday.

Turkey is a former ally of Damascus, and while Ankara first backed Assad after the uprising erupted, it turned against the regime after its violent crackdown on dissent.

At the end of his speech and as he was leaving the hall, he was mobbed by a group of loyalists shouting: "With our blood and souls we redeem you, Bashar!"

The president waved and blew kisses to the crowd on his way out.

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