Syria's Assad Defies Pressure To Step Down

Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to stay in power during a speech Tuesday, defying international pressure for him to step aside. He vowed to respond to threats against him with an "iron hand."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Damascus, Syria today, defiant President Bashar al-Assad promised to use an iron fist against protestors. He called them terrorists inspired by foreigners. Assad's under intense international pressure for his use of violence and repression against those seeking change in Syria. The president lashed out at his many critics in the Arab world, saying they've abandoned, quote, "Arab interests."

NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the developments, and he joins us now from Istanbul. Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: And correct me if I'm wrong. We haven't heard much from Assad himself in the nearly 10 months that this uprising has been going on.

KENYON: No. He's been - very rarely granted interviews and this is one of only a few speeches.

GREENE: Well, in this rare speech today that he gave, he shows no sign of caving to international pressure. Despite signing an Arab League peace proposal that made news last month, he was clear today in saying the security response to unrest would continue. And I want to play a little bit of the speech and what we're about to hear is coming through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Through translator) And our top priority now is to restore security, which we have been enjoying for decades. This cannot be achieved without striking with an iron fist against terrorism. We cannot relent.

GREENE: I mean, iron fist. It doesn't sound like this is a leader who's ready to make any concessions to the opposition.

KENYON: No, not at all, David. He gave no corner. He reiterated the government's view that the problem, as he sees it, in Syrian cities and towns are the result of machinations of foreign powers and what he called misled protestors. The president said, yes, he knows he promised reforms. But, no, he can't begin to enact them until security is restored.

He called on the population to turn against the demonstrators and support the army and the security forces, the people called heroes who gave their lives for their country. He said victory is near, but he never really came close to defining how near or what that victory might look like.

GREENE: And President Assad reserved some of the harshest criticism, comments in his speech for the Arab League, saying they had failed for decades to protect Arab interests, and they were doing so again. And what do you make of that part of his speech, his message to the Arab League?

KENYON: Well, you have to remember that Arab nationalism is embedded in Syria's modern history. And when the Arab League suspended Syria, that was a real slap to the country's self-image. Since then, the league has voted for sanctions against Syria, although more than one member state has pleaded for an exemption and hoping not to implement those.

Actually, in some ways, Assad, who has often said he's no Moammar Gadhafi, did sound like the late Libyan leader did in that section of the speech. Because Gadhafi used to regularly ridicule the Arab League in his speeches.

GREENE: And did he give any evidence of this foreign influence that he was suggesting or was it mostly words?

KENYON: It was vague references. He didn't identify countries. Clearly on the street, among pro-Assad forces, you will hear references to the U.S., to Europe, to Israel and in a kind of a Western conspiracy designed to strip Syria of its dignity and its sovereignty. But, no, he didn't get any more specific than that.

GREENE: And very briefly, Peter, what can you tell us about some reports from a Kuwait News Agency that two Arab League observers were attacked and injured in Syria?

KENYON: Well, the Kuwait News Agency today is reporting that two Kuwaiti members of the mission were attacked and slightly injured, quote, "by unknown protestors" yesterday in the coastal city of Latakia. The report says they were briefly hospitalized and returned to their duties. There's no sign that they're leaving the mission, which now continues until January 19th.

GREENE: All right, that's the latest from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you very much, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, David.

GREENE: And again, we're reporting on a speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to NPR News.

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