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In rare speech, defiant Assad justifies crackdown

Syria’s president rips negotiation, offers own plan

“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,’’ President Bashar Assad said on Sunday.

SANA via EPA

“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,’’ President Bashar Assad said on Sunday.

BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad of Syria, sounding defiant, confident and, to critics, out of touch with the magnitude of his people’s grievances, proposed Sunday what he called a plan to resolve the country’s 21-month uprising with a new constitution and Cabinet and a national referendum.

But he offered no new acknowledgment of the gains by the rebels fighting against him, the excesses of his government, or the aspirations of the Syrian people.

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Assad also ruled out talks with the armed opposition and pointedly ignored its central demand that he step down, instead using much of a nearly hourlong speech to justify his harsh military crackdown.

Assad waved to a cheering, chanting crowd as he strode to the stage of the Damascus Opera House in the central Umayyad Square — where security forces had been deployed heavily the night before.

In his first public speech since June 2012, Assad repeated his longstanding assertions that the movement against him was driven by ‘‘murderous criminals’’ and terrorists receiving financing from abroad, and he appeared to push back hard against recent international efforts to broker a compromise.

“Everyone who comes to Syria knows that Syria accepts advice but not orders,’’ he said.

His speech came a week after the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, the senior Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, visited Damascus, the capital, in a push for a negotiated solution.

“Who should we negotiate with? Terrorists?’’ Assad asked. ‘‘We will negotiate with their masters.’’

Assad’s speech was a disappointment for international mediators and many Syrians who say they believe that without a negotiated settlement, Syria’s conflict will descend into an even bloodier stage. The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have died in what began as a peaceful protest movement and transformed into armed struggle after security forces fired on demonstrators.

Rebels have made gains in the north and east of Syria and in the Damascus suburbs, but Assad’s government has pushed back with devastating airstrikes and artillery bombardments and appears confident that it can hold the capital.

The Syrian government last year adopted a constitution that theoretically allows political parties to compete with the ruling Ba’ath Party. It conducted parliamentary elections, but they were boycotted by his opponents.

Assad said Sunday that the first step in his plan would be for foreign countries to stop financing the rebels. Then his government would put down its weapons, he said, although he reserved the right to continue to fight terrorism.

Next would come national dialogue, but only with groups Assad termed acceptable; then a new constitution approved by referendum; then a coalition government. There was no mention of holding elections before Assad’s term expires in 2014.

Assad’s opponents rejected the proposals as meaningless and insincere.

“We can’t deal with this murderous regime at all,’’ George Sabra, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said in a brief interview. ‘‘This regime has killed 60,000 people, so no one could possibly think that working with this regime is a possibility. It is out of the question.’’

Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, said Sunday that he was open to dialogue with ‘‘those who have not betrayed Syria,’’ apparently a reference to tolerated opposition groups that reject armed revolution, like the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change. Syria’s allies China and Russia have floated its members as possible compromise brokers.

Yet Assad’s speech appeared unlikely to satisfy even those among his opponents who reject the armed rebellion, since it made no apology for the arrests of peaceful activists or for airstrikes that have destroyed neighborhoods. Assad gave no sign of acknowledging that the movement against him was anything more than a foreign plot or had any goals other than to inflict suffering and destroy the country.

“They killed the intellectuals in order to afflict ignorance on us,’’ Assad said. ‘‘They attacked the infrastructure in order to make our life difficult, they deprived children from school in order to bring the country backward. The enemies of the people are the enemies of God.’’

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