BEIRUT – In his sharpest warning yet about the potential fallout of his country’s civil war on neighboring states, Syrian President Bashar Assad warned the fall of his regime or the breakup of Syria would unleash a “domino effect” fueling Middle East instability for years to come.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian conflict has become “a massacre” that must be stopped through peace talks, and reiterated the Kremlin’s firm rejection of calls for Assad’s ouster.
Speaking in an interview broadcast Friday, Assad accused his neighbors of stoking the revolt against his rule and warned they would eventually pay a heavy price.
“We are surrounded by countries that help terrorists and allow them to enter Syria,” he told Turkish TV station Ulusal Kanal. “Everybody knows that if the disturbances in Syria reach the point of the country’s breakup, or terrorist forces control Syria . . . then this will immediately spill over into neighboring countries and there will be a domino effect that will reach countries across the Middle East.”
The Assad regime is under growing pressure from an increasingly effective rebel force that has managed to pry away much of northern Syria and is making significant headway in the south, capturing military bases and territory that could offer rebels a staging ground to attack the seat of the president’s power, Damascus.
The rebel gains coincide with what Western and Arab officials say are U.S.-backed training of opposition fighters in Jordan and an influx of foreign-funded weapons into southern Syria. The rebel advances have given the opposition momentum and put the Assad regime on the defensive in the 2-year-old conflict, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 70,000 people.
Assad also lashed out at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was a close ally before the crisis began but has turned into one of his harshest critics. Turkey has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition, providing it with logistical support and shelter.
“When the prime minister (Erdogan), or the government or officials get involved in shedding Syrian people’s blood, there is no place for bridges between me and them or the Syrian people that don’t respect them,” Assad warned. He criticized Erdogan for reconciling with Israel after three years of frosty relations, and accused the Turkish leader of “working in coalition with Israel to strike against Syria.”
Assad also used the interview to quash rumors that he had been killed by one of his guards or that he has been in hiding, saying: “I am present in front of you and not in a shelter. These are mere rumors.”
The Syrian revolt started with largely peaceful protests in March 2011 but has morphed into a full-blown civil war with increasingly sectarian overtones. Sunni Muslims dominate rebel ranks, while Assad’s regime is composed mostly of Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group to which the president and his family belong.
Russia, a strong ally of Assad, has shielded Damascus from U.N. sanctions and largely stood by the president, although it has also signaled that it is not tied to his remaining in power. At the same time, Moscow has refused to back appeals for Assad to step down and has instead pushed for talks with the opposition.
Speaking to the German ARD television station in remarks released Friday by the Kremlin, Putin repeated Russia’s strong rejection of calls for Assad’s ouster. “What is going on is a massacre, this is a disaster, a catastrophe,” Putin said. “It has to be stopped.”
He added, however, that “when they say that Assad is fighting against his own people, we need to remember that this is the armed part of the opposition.”
Putin said that negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition are necessary to provide guarantees to all parties and prevent the country from sliding into turmoil, as befell Libya, Iraq and Yemen. “Therefore, we believe that it is necessary to bring everyone to the negotiation table, so that all warring parties could reach an agreement on how their interests will be protected and in which way they will participate in the future governance of the country,” he said.