7 Jan 2013

US rejects Syrian 'puppets' claim

8:22 pm on 7 January 2013

The United States has dismissed a peace initiative outlined by President Bashar al Assad of Syria, in which he denounced his opponents as "puppets of the West".

The US state department said a peace plan outlined by Mr Assad was "detached from reality", calling it "another attempt by the regime to cling to power".

The EU reacted by restating that the Syrian president had "to step aside and allow for a political transition".

The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which began in March 2011.

Sunday's televised speech was Bashar al-Assad's first public address since June.

'Enemies of God'

He denounced opponents as "enemies of God and puppets of the West" and said Syria wanted to negotiate with the "master not the servants".

He said Syria had not rejected diplomatic moves but insisted it would not negotiate with people with "terrorist" ideas.

Mr Assad set out a plan involving a national dialogue conference and a referendum on a national charter.

In his speech Mr Assad set out a series of steps he said would provide a solution to the crisis:

  • Outside powers to stop arming what he called "terrorist groups".
  • The army would then halt military operations, while reserving the right to defend state interests.
  • The government would then contact what he termed "Syrian individuals and political parties" to engage in a conference of national dialogue.
  • The conference would try to establish a national charter that would be put to a referendum, leading to parliamentary elections and a new government.

The BBC reports that the president's latest words are unlikely to persuade any in the opposition that he is ready to discuss a viable transition.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) rejected the proposals.

Spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters news agency his group would accept nothing less than the departure of Mr Assad and his government.

In recent months opposition forces have gained control of swathes of territory in northern Syria.

But rebel efforts to gain ground in and around major cities including Damascus have met with stiff resistance and increasingly destructive air strike.

'Clinging to power' - USA

In Washington, state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the speech was "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people's goal of a political transition".

She added that the initiative "is detached from reality" and undermines efforts by international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

She repeated calls for President Assad to leave office - as did EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

"We maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition," Baroness Ashton's office said in a statement.

Iran has welcomed the Syrian president's proposed political solution to end the conflict: State radio quoted the deputy foreign minister in Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, as saying Syria's "genuine opposition" believes the crisis could be resolved through political measures rather than violence.

But British Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt, says Mr Assad's speech was depressing, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called his remarks "repetitions of what he's said all along".

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said "the empty promises of reform fool no-one".