DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syria’s internal opposition Monday snubbed a call to dialogue from President Bashar Assad, as NATO powers challenged the leader’s defiant grip on power and dispatched Patriot missile batteries to neighboring Turkey.
A day after Assad made the proposal and called on Syrians to fight an opposition driven by what he characterized as religious extremists, Syria’s state media said government troops repulsed a rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo.
The official SANA news agency said regime forces killed and wounded members of a “terrorist group” in the fighting late Sunday, but did not provide a number.
In his speech Sunday, Assad sketched out terms for a peace plan but dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition, labeling them “murderous criminals” whom he said were responsible for nearly two years of violence. Nearly 60,000 people have died, according to a recent United Nations estimate.
Assad appeared confident and relaxed in the one-hour address – his first public speech in six months. He struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he was ready to hold a dialogue – but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria.” He also vowed to continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left.”
He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.
The opposition swiftly rejected the proposal, which came amid stepped-up international efforts for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian conflict.
Syria’s domestic opposition, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, a tolerated non-armed opposition organization separate from the internationally recognized armed opposition Syrian National Coalition, immediately rejected the plan.
The head of the NCB, Hasan Abdel-Azim, told a news conference in Damascus his group “will not take part in a national dialogue before violence stops,” political prisoners were released, humanitarian aid was delivered to conflict-torn areas, and missing Syrians were highlighted in a statement.
He also stated that “there won’t be direct negotiations or dialogue with the regime,” but only within a framework headed by joint U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon said in a Monday statement Assad’s speech would not end the Syrian people’s “terrible suffering.” Ban said he and Brahimi believed a “political transition that includes the establishment of a transitional government and the holding of free and fair (U.N.-monitored) elections” was necessary.
Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.
The West, including the U.S., denounced the proposal.
The foreign minister of Iran, one of Syria’s closest allies, hailed Assad’s initiative. Ali Akbar Salehi said it contains “solutions” to the conflict and outlines “a comprehensive political process which guarantees the presence of all voices in power.” Salehi called on the international community to support Assad’s initiative.
“All regional and international partners should help the immediate resolution of the crisis and prevent its spread to the region,” Salehi said in a statement that was carried by the state-run IRNA news agency Monday.
Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed to stem the bloodshed.
The violence has often spilled over into Syria’s neighboring countries, including Turkey.
The Dutch military Monday shipped Patriot missiles to Turkey, a fellow NATO member, after the alliance agreed in December to deploy the anti-missile systems along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.
Once a close ally of Damascus, Ankara has turned into one of the Syrian regime’s harshest critics since Assad launched a crackdown on dissent. Turkey requested the missiles to boost its air defenses against possible spillover from Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Assad’s initiative and again called on the Syrian leader to relinquish power.
“There is one way out for Bashar and that is to respect the will of the people and do whatever is necessary,” Erdogan said at a media conference while visiting Gabon. His remarks were broadcast by Turkish state TV Monday.
The two Dutch batteries are scheduled to be operational by the end of the month and will remain in Turkey for a year. They are part of a NATO contingent of Patriot missiles that intercept incoming ballistic missiles. Two U.S. and two German batteries are also being deployed to other parts of southern Turkey.
The Syria conflict began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but has since shifted into a civil war.
Fighting continued unabated Monday.
The opposition activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels clashed with troops in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Daraya south of the capital. The Observatory said the army sent reinforcements there to join in an offensive aimed at dislodging rebels from the district, located just a few kilometers from a strategic military air base west of the capital.
The Observatory also reported clashes in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, in the central region of Homs and in the southern province of Deraa, the birthplace of the uprising in March 2011.