Assad speech broadly dismissed
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's call today for national mobilisation in a "war to defend the nation" has been dismissed by his opponents and various foreign leaders.
Appearing in an opera house in central Damascus packed with cheering supporters, the Syrian leader had delivered his first speech to an audience since June last year, and his first public comments since a television interview in November.
He unveiled what he described as a peace initiative to end the 21-month-old uprising. But the proposal, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude "those who have betrayed Syria", was rejected by enemies who have already said they will not negotiate unless he leaves power.
However, Assad's opponents dismissed the speech as a ploy to cling to power. The opposition National Coalition said it was an attempt to thwart an international agreement, backed by Western and Arab powers, that he must stand down.
British foreign secretary William Hague described the speech as “beyond hypocritical”.
He attacked the Syrian leader’s rare television address as full of “empty promises” that would “fool no one”.
Mr Hague took to Twitter to vent his anger about the speech, writing: “#AssadSpeech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing #Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one.”
British prime minister David Cameron had earlier reiterated his calls for the Syrian leader to go.
“My message to Assad is go,” he told BBC 1’s Andrew Marr Show. “He has the most phenomenal amount of blood on his hands.”
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels would "look carefully if there is anything new in the speech, but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition".
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Assad had simply repeated empty promises in his speech, and called for a swift transition in the war-torn country.
"His remarks are just repetitions of what he's said all along. They are the same promises he made to us," Mr Davutoglu said. "As Assad no longer has the representative authority over the Syrian people, his words have lost persuasiveness ... A transition period needs to be completed swiftly through talks with representatives of the Syrian nation."
National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni said Assad's speech was timed to try to prevent a breakthrough from those talks by taking a position intended to thwart compromise.
"The talk by Brahimi and others that there could be a type of political solution being worked out has prompted him to come out and tell the others 'I won't accept a solution'," Mr Bunni said, adding Assad feared any deal would mean his downfall.
"He is sensing the danger that any initiative would entail."
Assad had spoken confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and chanting: "With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, O Bashar!"
At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: "God, Syria and Bashar is enough!" as a smiling Assad waved and was escorted from the hall.
"We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," Assad said. "This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation.
"We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy while security and stability are absent on the streets of our country," Assad said. "The nation is for all and we all must protect it."
Giving the speech in the opera house, in a part of central Damascus that has been hit by rebel attacks, could itself be seen as a show of strength for a leader whose public appearances have grown rarer as the rebellion has gathered force.
He spoke before a giant flag, constructed of portraits of what state television described as victims of the conflict.
The United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, which has brought fighting to the edge of the capital.