Assad Blames Protests On Foreign Involvement

A defiant Bashar Assad addressed the nation for the first time in seven months Tuesday, making clear he has no intention of halting the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters and renegade soldiers. Assad lashed out at the Arab League, which has deployed monitors in Syria to oversee implementation of a peace plan. Two of those monitors were reported lightly wounded Tuesday in an attack near a northwestern city.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad delivered a defiant speech today. He called protesters mongrels misled by foreigners and he vowed to stay in power. Assad also criticized the Arab League, which has an observer mission inside Syria.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has more on the story from Istanbul in neighboring Turkey.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The Syrian president has made few public comments since his country erupted in mid March, but his theme has been broadly consistent. He wants to enact reforms, but can't do so in an atmosphere of chaos. In a national address at Damascus University today, he insisted that a new constitution, elections and reforms are still possible. But through an interpreter, he said the top priority is to restore security.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Through Translator) This cannot be achieved without striking with an iron fist against tourists. We cannot relent and we will not be lax with those who are perpetrating killing or intimidating or conspiring with the foreigner against his own homeland and people.

KENYON: The theme of Syria, the victim of a foreign conspiracy, played heavily into the nearly two hour address. Assad accused external powers of conspiring to destabilize Syria. Assad singled out the Arab League, which suspended Syria last year for sharp criticism, saying the body was essentially fronting for Syria's Western enemies.

AL-ASSAD: (Through Translator) After they failed with the Security Council, simply for their failure to convince the world of their lies, they had to maintain an Arab cover and an Arab platform to launch their designs.

KENYON: Opposition activists inside Syria posted videos and supplies unverified reports of continued violence. The opposition local coordinating committees report scores of people killed in the past few days, with the highest death toll today coming in the northeastern city of Deir ez-Zor.

Fears that Syria's problems may spill over beyond its borders continue to worry the neighbors. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says concern is growing that peaceful protests could devolve into all-out war. He's heard through an interpreter.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through Translator) The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious sectarian racial war and this needs to be prevented.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KENYON: But as the protests and the crackdown continue, analysts say Syria will likely continue to defy its international critics. The next question may be whether the rising death toll convinces holdouts on the UN Security Council, led by Russia and China, to drop their objections to stronger action by the Council.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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