DAMASCUS – President Bashar Assad offered a road map to end Syria’s civil war in a rare speech Sunday in which he branded the opposition “slaves” of the West and told foreign powers to stop backing the rebels.
The main armed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, swiftly rejected the plan and Washington said Assad’s speech, his first in public in seven months, showed he was “detached from reality.”
The European Union again called on him to step aside.
And Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi told CNN he backs Syrian calls for Assad to be tried for war crimes.
Assad, speaking to wild applause from ecstatic crowds packed into a Damascus cultural center, outlined a plan he said was aimed at resolving the 21-month-long conflict that the United Nations says has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
The first step, he said, was for foreign powers to stop supporting armed rebels seeking to topple him.
“Right after that, our military operations will cease,” he said, adding, without elaborating, that a mechanism would be set up to monitor any such truce.
The government would then step up contacts to convene a national dialogue conference with opponents “inside and outside” Syria who do not take orders from abroad.
“We will hold dialogue with (those who are) the masters (of their decisions) not the slaves (of foreign powers),” Assad said.
The national dialogue conference would draft a charter that would then be put to a referendum. Parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government would follow, he said.
Any resolution of the conflict, however, had to be purely Syrian and “there must be agreement at the national dialogue conference.”
The Syrian National Coalition, which insists Assad must step aside before any dialogue, said his speech was directed at those ready to see him remain in power.
Assad will not accept “any initiative that does not restore stability to his regime and put him at the helm of control,” spokesman Walid al-Bunni said. “He wants negotiating partners of his own choosing and will not accept any initiative that could meet the aspirations of the Syrian people or ultimately lead to his departure and the dismantling of his regime.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad’s speech “is yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people’s goal of a political transition. His initiative is detached from reality.”