BEIRUT – The bravado sounded familiar. Like the leaders of other countries swept away by Arab Spring uprisings, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to never be forced into exile and to die in his homeland.
Assad dug in his heels even as world powers move to boost the opposition in Syria’s civil war – the latest turn in a nearly 20-month-old crisis so overwhelming that even the Red Cross says it can no longer cope.
I am not a puppet, I was not made by the West for me to go to the West or any other country, Assad said in an interview with Russia Today, which posted excerpts Thursday on its website. I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria.
The rare interview – in which the 47-year-old president spoke in English with his words translated into Arabic – was posted online two days after British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Assad could be allowed safe passage out of Syria if that would guarantee an end to the civil war.
The full interview will be broadcast today, the TV station said. It was unclear when or where it took place. Assad was seen in a gray suit and tie, casually talking and also walking with a reporter outside a house.
Assad has made only a few appearances public since the revolt began in March 2011. Last month, state TV showed him praying on the floor of a Damascus mosque for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
As the two sides battle for the upper hand, civilians are bearing the brunt of the crisis.
Peter Maurer, the head of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said the civil war has been in a downward spiral for months.
We can’t cope with the worsening of the situation, Maurer said. The seriousness of the crisis is deepening with every day and this trend has been uninterrupted since summer.
The Red Cross has improved its transportation and logistics, making it easier to bring in truckloads of food and medicine, but it has become overwhelmed by the dire need of hundreds of thousands of people struggling inside Syria, he said.
Death toll unabated
The daily death toll in the civil war has been averaging 100 or more recently, according to activists’ accounts. The fighting pits rebels and troops, and the violence includes artillery shelling and regime airstrikes on rebel-held areas.
Assad’s defiant vow to live and die in Syria echoed statements by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya – two Arab dictators who said they would never leave their homelands before popular revolts swept them from power.
In February 2011, Mubarak vowed he would die on Egyptian soil, and Gadhafi had said he was ready to die a martyr in Libya. But both men suffered humiliating downfalls. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the violence that killed nearly 1,000 protesters. Gadhafi was captured and killed.
In the interview, Assad also warned against foreign military intervention.
I don’t think the West is headed in this direction. But if it does, nobody can predict the consequences, he said.
Assad has made such warnings before, saying any attempt to meddle in the Syrian crisis would cause the entire region to burn.
But world powers have shown no appetite for military intervention, and there are fears that arming the fractious opposition could backfire, with powerful weapons falling into the hands of extremists.
Although Assad remains deeply isolated worldwide, Russia has remained one of Syria’s most loyal and powerful allies, shielding Damascus from international action at the U.N. Security Council.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday criticized the West for supporting the opposition, saying foreign powers should try to force both sides to stop fighting.
If their priority is, figuratively speaking, Assad’s head, the supporters of such approach must realize that the price for that will be lives of the Syrians, not their own lives, Lavrov said in remarks posted on his ministry’s website. Bashar Assad isn’t going anywhere and will never leave, no matter what they say. He can’t be persuaded to take that step.