In Rare Public Speech, Assad Says Syria Must Defend Itself
Syrian President Bashar Assad addressed his country publicly for the first time in months on Sunday, maintaining his prior assertions that the violence estimated to have killed more than 60,000 of his citizens is the work of terrorists.
NPR's Peter Kenyon tells our Newscast Unit that Assad insisted he could win the battle. Kenyon reports:
"Assad mentioned diplomatic efforts only in general terms and focused on praising the military and security forces. Using language often associated with Islamist fighters, Assad said, 'The blood of the martyrs will defend the country's unity, and it will cleanse our country of betrayal and deceit.' "
Though Assad did propose an outline for some changes, including a new constitution, he said the initiative would only happen after "Western countries" stopped funding the opposition, The Associated Press reports.
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Syrian state media say President Bashar Assad will outline a peace plan on Sunday, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports. Sunday morning, activists reported "heavy clashes between rebels and government forces around the country," according to The Associated Press.
Kenyon says there's no suggestion Assad's resignation will be part of his announcement.
He tells our Newscast Desk that, according to state media's official sources, the plan includes: a ceasefire overseen by international observers, changes to the constitution, a national unity government and free elections.
As the BBC reports, diplomatic efforts have so far failed to end the violence:
"UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been pushing a plan approved at an international conference in June that would create a transitional government.
"But the plan leaves President Assad's role unclear. The Syrian opposition has insisted that Mr. Assad must step down for the conflict to end."
More than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Office estimates, a number it called "truly shocking."
NPR's Deborah Amos shared her experiences reporting in and around the country on Friday. She told NPR's Steve Inskeep:
"One teacher told me that the kids only paint in red. And it's almost impossible for them to draw human beings without blood coming out of them."
Update at 7:55 a.m. ET. Not Much Has Changed:
NPR's Kelly McEvers says Assad's speech contained little new information — even the reforms mentioned have been proposed before, yet had no effect on the conflict. She tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin:
"This speech was delivered in an opera house in Syria's capital, packed with people who would leap to their feet, pump their fists and shout his name whenever he talked about defending the country. So this speech was for them, to reassure them that he's still strong."
Update at 6 a.m. ET. The Proposal:
Assad proposed a reconciliation conference and a new national charter, which he said would have to be approved by popular referendum. The AP reports:
"Assad, however, says the initiative can only take roots after regional and Western countries stop funding what he called militant extremists fighting to overthrow him."
He emphasized the importance of a Syria-generated solution, saying, "Syria accepts advice but not dictation," Al Jazeera translated.
Update at 5:30 a.m. ET. Assad Is Speaking:
Assad says the conflict is not a "revolution" and reiterates his previous assertions that the violence is the work of terrorists. He calls them "a bunch of criminals," according to an Al Jazeera television translation. "We have to defend our country," he says.