Syria's Assad warns of 'earthquake' if West intervenes

BBC's Jim Muir: "The trend appears to be towards armed resistance rather than peaceful demonstrations"

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned of an "earthquake" if the West intervenes in his country.

In a rare interview with the UK's Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Mr Assad said involvement risked transforming Syria into "another Afghanistan".

The UN has renewed its call for the repression to end, and China has warned Syria the situation cannot continue.

More than 50 civilians and members of the security forces were killed on Saturday, according to the two sides.

Activists said 21 civilians were killed and that army tanks had shelled a historic district in the city of Homs.

Analysis

President Assad is warning that things are very different in Syria and he's right. There are sectarian issues, between Sunnis, Shias and Alawites, and ethnic issues, between Kurds and Arabs, involving neighbouring states. Libya was far less complex and is pretty much ethnically homogenous.

There are other issues including neighbouring Israel, which Syria has a long history of hostility towards. Any Western intervention could look like it's part of some conspiracy to undermine Syrian steadfastness. Those are the cards Mr Assad is playing and he's ringing the alarm bells very loudly.

The West is very well aware of these sensitivities, but on the other hand if things go on as they are - with no end in sight - Syria could in any case face a kind of fragmentation and instability that the West and Turkey and other neighbours don't want to see.

The government said 20 soldiers were killed in Homs, and 10 members of the security forces were killed during an ambush of their bus in Idlib province.

More than 3,000 people have died in the unrest since protests calling for the government of Mr Assad to step down broke out in March.

'Faultline'

In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Mr Assad said Western countries were "going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely".

"Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the faultline, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake," he said.

"Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.

"Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?"

President Assad admitted that "many mistakes" had been made by his security forces in the early part of the uprising, but the paper said he insisted that "only terrorists" were now being targeted.

He said he had responded differently to the Arab Spring than other, deposed Arab leaders.

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar Assad
  • Born 1965 as second son of Syria's long-term leader Hafez Assad
  • Family from minority Alawite sect in mainly-Sunni Syria
  • Studying in London to become an eye doctor when older brother died in 1994
  • Took over as president in 2000 aged 34 when his father died
  • Married Asma al-Akhras, UK-born Syrian investment banker he met in London. They have three children
  • A self-confessed computer nerd - his only public role until 2000 was as head of the Syrian Computer Society
  • During 11 years in office has opened the economy but has continued to jail critics and control the media
  • Told the UK's Sunday Telegraph in October 2011: "I live a normal life. I drive my own car, we have neighbours, I take my kids to school. That's why I am popular."

"We didn't go down the road of stubborn government," he said. "Six days after [the protests began], I commenced reform."

Mr Assad described the uprising as a "struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism".

"We've been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them," he said.

Meanwhile China's Middle East envoy Wu Sike said he had warned Syria on his recent visit to Damascus about the "danger of the situation and that it cannot continue".

Mr Wu, now in Cairo, said he had told Mr Assad he must "respect and respond to the aspirations and rightful demands of the Syrian people".

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Mr Assad must respond to demands for change with serious reform, "not repression and violence", and called for an immediate halt to military operations.

His calls echo those of members of the Arab League who on Friday sent an "urgent message" to the Syrian government, denouncing "the continued killings of civilians" taking part in protests.

The Arab League's ministerial committee on the Syrian crisis also urged Damascus to "take the necessary measures" to protect civilians.

League officials are meeting Syrian counterparts again in Qatar on Sunday to discuss the possibility of a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.

However, the League's two-week deadline for such a dialogue to start expires on Sunday.

Soldiers killed

On Saturday, two of the country's main activist groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordinating Committees, said shells had hit the Baba Amr district of Homs.

Reuters news agency reported that one person was shot dead by a sniper and two were killed during machinegun fire between Mr Assad's forces and defectors in the city. Activists said that 21 civilians had been killed on Saturday, including 12 in Hama and three in Homs.

Raids and arrests also were reported around the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, the Associated Press reports.

In another incident near Homs, up to 20 Syrian soldiers were killed and 53 wounded in clashes with presumed army deserters, according to Agence France-Presse.

In a separate incident, 10 security agents and a deserter were killed in a bus ambush near the Turkish border, AFP reported, quoting activists.

The Observatory said the bus was transporting security agents between the villages of al-Habit and Kafrnabuda in Idlib province when it was ambushed "by armed men, probably deserters".

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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