Bashar al-Assad attacks Saudi Arabia and Qatar as opposition group blames regime for disappearance of its leaders
The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has said he is adamant his regime will not fall and lashed out at Gulf countries which he accused of using their enormous oil wealth to try to drive him from power.
Assad’s comments were published on Friday as an opposition group, the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, accused the regime of being behind the disappearance of two of its leaders.
Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir and Ayas Ayyash were expected to take part in a conference this Sunday in Damascus by 20 Syrian groups that are calling for Assad to step down. But they disappeared on Thursday along with a friend who had picked them up at Damascus international airport, the group said.
The group’s head, Hassan Abdul-Azim, told the Associated Press that the regime was believed to be behind the disappearance.
Syria’s crisis began in March last year with anti-government demonstrations inspired by the Arab spring and demanding reforms. The protests were met with a brutal crackdown by the regime. Syria later became embroiled in a civil war between forces fighting for Assad and those trying to topple him.
Activists say nearly 30,000 people have been killed since the crisis began, the vast majority civilians.
After Assad’s remarks were published, the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zoebi, told state-run TV that the president had received nine Egyptian journalists and had a chat with them about the latest developments in Syria.
The minister said none of the journalists took notes as the meeting was considered a “personal visit”, but a reporter for the weekly al-Ahram al-Arabi published some of what was said.
The weekly quoted Assad as saying that the rebels “will not succeed” and that a foreign military intervention such as the one that helped topple the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi will “not be repeated” in Syria.
Assad also launched one of his harshest attacks on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been among his strongest critics and backers of the opposition, saying they are trying to influence the region with money.
“They think their money can buy geography, history and a regional role,” Assad reportedly said.
“They are giving terrorists weapons and money with hope of repeating the Libyan model. Instead of helping regional stability, they are supplying armed elements with weapons and training in order to weaken the Syrian state.”
The upheaval in Syria presents an opportunity for the Gulf’s Sunni rulers to bolster their influence and possibly leave the Shia powerhouse Iran without its critical alliances that flow through Damascus. Assad’s regime, which is allied strongly with Iran, is led by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Syria’s ties with the Gulf nations have been strained in the past – Assad once called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders “half men” for being critical of Hezbollah over the 34-day war between the Lebanese Shia militant group and Israel in 2006.
In the briefing, Assad added that the only way to solve the Syrian crisis is through “dialogue with the opposition” and that the “door for dialogue is open.”
Most Syrian opposition groups reject any talks with the regime, saying they will not accept anything less than Assad’s departure from power and the dissolving of his regime’s security agencies.
Abdul-Azim, the opposition leader, repeated that stance and said the opposition wants a “new regime that represents the will of the people.”
He added his group will go ahead with the plans for Sunday’s opposition conference despite the disappearance of the two leaders. The gathering will invite European ambassadors, envoys from China and Russia, which back the regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday that nearly 30,000 Syrians have been killed during the uprising.
The count includes 20,935 civilians, 1,153 army defectors fighting alongside the rebels and 7,141 Syrian troops fighting for the Assad regime – a total of 29,229, said the head of the group, Rami Abdul-Rahman.
The list was compiled from reports by witnesses and medical staff, he said, adding that he only includes those identified by name or whose death was authenticated by amateur video. Several thousand who are presumed dead, including pro-Assad troops, have been kept off the list because the bodies could not be identified.
Another Syrian opposition group, the Local Co-ordination Committees, put the overall death toll at 26,405. However, its count does not include Syrian troops killed in battle. It relies on a network of activists in Syria to collect its information.
Fighting in Syria has intensified in recent weeks, with the regime increasingly relying on air strikes to try to drive rebels out of territory they are holding, particularly in the north. The air attacks, along with the use of heavy weapons by rebels, have driven up the daily death toll, said Abdul-Rahman.
More than 250 people were killed on Thursday including 199 civilians, five army defectors and 46 regime soldiers, Abdul-Rahman said. August has been the bloodiest month so far, with nearly 5,000 dead.
Meanwhile, in the north-eastern town of Ein al-Arab, a gunman on a motorcycle shot dead a leading Kurdish opposition figure, Mahmoud Wali, also known as Abu Jandi, as he walked out of his office late on Thursday, the Kurdish activists Mustafa Osso and Ibrahim Issa said.
Wali was a senior member of the Kurdish National Council, which includes several Kurdish groups.
Osso said it was not clear who was behind what he said was a “political assassination”.
On Friday, activists reported clashes and shelling in different areas around Syria, with the fighting being most intense in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial capital. The fighting there came a day after regime air strikes hit a petrol station in northern Syria, setting off a fiery explosion that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens.