Rebel victory could destabilise Middle East for years - Assad

Syrian president critical of Turkish and Arab League leaders in rare TV interview

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (c) meets members of a ministerial committee responsible for establishing a framework aimed at ending the two-year conflict with anti-government forces last week. Photograph: Reuters/Sana.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (c) meets members of a ministerial committee responsible for establishing a framework aimed at ending the two-year conflict with anti-government forces last week. Photograph: Reuters/Sana.


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has warned that if rebel forces battling to overthrow him take power in Syria they could destabilise the Middle East for decades.

The Syrian leader, locked in a two-year conflict which he says has been fuelled by his regional foes, also criticised Turkey's "foolish and immature" leaders and Arab neighbours he said were arming and sheltering rebel fighters.

"If the unrest in Syria leads to the partitioning of the country, or if the terrorist forces take control ... the situation will inevitably spill over into neighbouring countries and create a domino effect throughout the Middle East and beyond," he said in an interview with Turkish television.

Turmoil would spread "east, west, north and south. This will lead to a state of instability for years and maybe decades to come," Dr Assad said in the interview, posted by the Syrian presidency on the internet.

His remarks were an acid reiteration of his long-standing argument that Syria and the region will face a bleak future if he falls. His foes argue that his determination to keep power at all costs has already plunged his country into disaster.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in Syrian's conflict. Daily death tolls of around 200 are not uncommon, monitoring groups say. More than a million refugees have fled the country and the Syrian Red Crescent says nearly four million have been internally displaced.

Neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan are both struggling to cope with the flood of refugees, while the sectarian element of the conflict - with mainly Sunni Muslim and Islamist fighters battling a president from Syria's Alawite minority - has also raised tensions in neighbours such as Lebanon and Iraq.

Today, it was reported that a Syrian government air strike had killed 15 people, including nine children, in a district of the northern city of Aleppo where Kurdish fighters have been battling forces loyal to Dr Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a warplane had bombarded the western edges of the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, where Assad's forces have been battling rebels for nine months.

In Damascus, state media said rebels fired a mortar bomb into the heart of the capital, killing one person, wounding several others and causing damage to buildings and cars nearby.

While accusing opponents of using "sectarian slogans", Dr Assad said the essence of the battle was between "forces and states seeking to take their people back into historic times, and states wanting to take their peoples into a prosperous future".

He appeared to be referring to Sunni Muslim Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, absolute monarchies which have supported efforts to arm insurgents in an uprising which began with peaceful protests for reform and spiralled into civil war.

Dr Assad said Turkey's prime minister Tayyip Erdogan was recruiting fighters with Qatari money to wage war in Syria, but warned his former friend that the bloodshed could not easily be contained. "The fire in Syria will burn Turkey. Unfortunately he does not see this reality," Dr Assad said.

Mr Erdogan, he said, "has not uttered a single truthful word since the crisis in Syria began".

Dr Assad also condemned the Arab League, which has suspended Syria's membership and last month invited opposition leaders Moaz Alkhatib and Ghassan Hitto to attend a summit meeting in his place.

"The Arab League itself lacks legitimacy," he said. "It is an organisation which represents Arab states and not Arab people. It has lacked legitimacy for a long time because these Arab states themselves .... do not reflect the will of the Arab people."

Dr Assad also dismissed Western countries which condemned his crackdown on the protest as hypocrites. "France and Britain committed massacres in Libya with the support and cover of the United States. The Turkish government is knee-deep in Syrian blood. Are these states really concerned about Syrian blood?"

Responding to rumours of his assassination spread by activists and fighters over the last two weeks, Dr Assad said he was living as ever in Damascus, despite rebel advances in the outskirts of the city and regular mortar attacks on its centre.

"I am not hiding in a bunker. These rumours (aim) to undermine the morale of the Syrian people. I neither live on a Russian warship nor in Iran. I live in Syria, in the same place I always did."