DOHA, (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad scotched any suggestion he might flee Syria and warned that any Western military intervention to topple him would have catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and beyond.
Speaking in an interview with Russia Today (RT) television to be broadcast on Friday, Assad said he did not see the West embarking on a military intervention in Syria and said the cost of such action would be unbearable.
“I think that the cost of a foreign invasion of Syria – if it happens – would be bigger than the entire world can bear … This will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” he said.
“I do not believe the West is heading in this direction, but if they do, nobody can tell what will happen afterwards,” he added. The remarks were published in Arabic on Russia Today’s web site. It was not clear when Assad gave the interview.
Assad’s defiant remarks coincided with a landmark meeting in Qatar on Thursday of Syria’s fractious opposition to hammer out an agreement on a new umbrella body uniting rebel groups inside and outside Syria amid growing international pressure to put their house in order and prepare for a post-Assad transition.
The United States and other Western powers have grown increasingly frustrated with the opposition over divisions and in-fighting which have undermined the chances of ousting Assad.
Backed by Washington, the Doha talks underline Qatar’s central role in the effort to end Assad’s rule as the Gulf state, which funded the Libyan revolt to oust Muammar Gaddafi, tries to position itself as a player in a post-Assad Syria.
“I am tougher than Gaddafi,” Assad told his interviewer, according to a tweet posted by the editor-in-chief of the station.
‘LIVE AND DIE IN SYRIA’
Assad, who is battling to put down a 19-month old uprising against his rule, said he would “live and die in Syria”, in what appeared to be a rejection of the idea by British Prime Minister David Cameron this week that a safe exit and foreign exile could be one way to end the civil war in Syria.
“I am not a puppet and the West did not manufacture me in order that I leave to the West or any other country. I am Syrian, I am Syrian-made, and I must live and die in Syria,” he said. Russia Today’s web site showed footage of him speaking in the interview and walking down the stairs outside a white villa.
Two civilians, a woman and a young man, in Turkey’s Hatay border province were wounded by stray bullets fired from Syria, according to a Turkish official. Turkish forces increased their presence along the frontier, where officials have said they might seek NATO deployment of ground to air missiles.
Syria’s war, in which the opposition estimates 38,000 people have been killed, raises the spectre of wider Middle Eastern sectarian turmoil and poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges for U.S. President Barack Obama as he starts his second term.
International and regional rivalries have complicated efforts to mediate any resolution to the conflict. Russia and China have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have put Assad under pressure.
Regionally, Sunni Muslim Arab countries and Turkey oppose Assad while non-Arab Shi’ite Iran is backing the Alawite ruler, whose sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam and whose family has been in power for over 40 years.
The main opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has been heavily criticised by Western and Arab backers of the revolt as ineffective, run by exiles out of touch with events in Syria, and under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Britain’s Cameron said after Obama’s re-election this week that the crisis would be among the first topics the two leaders would discuss and that efforts had so far been inadequate.
Foreign Minister William Hague said Britain will now talk directly to Syrian fighters inside, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week slammed the SNC, saying the Qatar meeting should create a body that includes people fighting on the ground.
MEETING IN TROUBLE
But the plan to unite opposition groups ran into trouble almost as soon as it was put on the table by SNC member Riyadh Seif. The initiative would create a body that could eventually be considered a government-in-waiting capable of winning foreign recognition and therefore more military backing.
“It’s a consultative meeting, we will discuss all issues including forming some kind of authority to manage the liberated areas,” SNC head Abdulbaset Sieda told reporters in Doha, before the meeting began behind closed doors in a five-star hotel.
The meeting has so far been bogged down by arguments over the SNC representation and the number of seats the rival groups – which include Islamists, leftists and secularists – will have.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim was due to speak at the meeting later on Thursday, signalling pressure on the Syrian opposition to get their house in order from the U.S.-allied Arab country that has done the most to fund Arab opposition movements during the Arab Spring uprisings of the past year.
Seif’s proposal is the first concerted attempt to merge opposition forces to help end the conflict that has devastated large swathes of Syria, including cities, and threatens to widen into a regional sectarian conflagration.
The initiative would also create a Supreme Military Council, a Judicial Committee and a transitional government-in-waiting of technocrats – along the lines of Libya’s Transitional National Council, which managed to galvanise international support for its successful battle to topple Gaddafi.
One SNC source said the grouping had only agreed to the Doha conference under pressure from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States and France.
Western states have been reluctant to offer overt support to anti-Assad rebels inside the country too, fearing it would open the door to rule by hardline Islamists among them.
“The Arab League will agree to whatever the Syrians agree, but there are still differences over which political factions will dominate (in a new body),” said Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby.