(AP) By BARBARA SURK – Syria’s President Bashar Assad claimed in an interview published Thursday that countries conspiring against Syria have “used up all their tools” in their campaign to overthrow his regime. The remarks came as Western-backed Syrian opposition figures gathered in Turkey for talks on electing a new leadership.
In comments to the state-run Al-Thawra newspaper, Assad rejected the idea that what has been happening in Syria since more than two years is a revolution. Instead, he insisted it is a conspiracy by Western and some Arab states to destabilize his country.
In the same interview, Assad praised this week’s massive protests by Egyptians against their Islamist leader and said the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi meant the end of “political Islam.”
In Syria, more than 93,000 people have been killed since the crisis erupted in March 2011. The conflict began as peaceful protests against Assad’s rule, then turned into civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. Millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes.
Throughout the crisis, Assad has insisted that his government is not faced with a popular rebellion, but a Western-backed conspiracy against Syria, accusing the rebels fighting to topple his regime of being terrorists, Islamic extremists and mercenaries of the oil-rich Arab Gulf states that are allies of the United States.
“The countries that conspire against Syria have used up all their tools … and they have nothing left except direct (military) intervention,” Assad said in the interview, adding that such an intervention would not happen.
The Syrian regime says Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, in addition to the U.S. and its European allies, are on the list of countries conspiring against Syria. These states have been chief supporters of the opposition fighting to overthrow Assad.
Assad’s comments coincided with a meeting of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul in the second attempt in as many months by his opponents to unify their ranks.
The opposition bloc is mostly made up of exiled politicians with little support from Syrians trying to survive the third summer of conflict in the country that has been devastated by the fighting.
Sarah Karkour, a spokeswoman for the SNC, said that acting leader George Sabra and senior opposition figures Louay Safi and Mustafa Sabbagh are topping the list of candidates for the new leadership, including an interim government.
In late May, the opposition leaders met for more than a week in Istanbul, but failed to elected new leaders or devise a strategy for possible peace talks that the U.S. and Russia have been trying to convene in Geneva.
Khaled Saleh, a SNC spokesman, said the coalition “welcomes any international effort to bring about a political solution to the crisis,” but insisted that “any talks with Damascus on transition must start with the departure of Assad from power.”
Assad has repeatedly dismissed his political opponents as foreign-directed exiles who don’t represent the people of Syria. He has also shrugged off calls to step down, saying he will serve the rest of his term and could consider running for another one in next year’s presidential elections.
The newspaper, Al-Thawra, also quoted Assad saying his opponents failed because they tried to bring religion onto the battlefield. Assad insisted he still enjoys the support of the majority of Syrians, who have stood against Islamic radicals who have emerged as the most effective force on the opposition’s side.
Members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority have dominated the rebel ranks, while Assad’s regime is mostly made up of Alawaites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
“Whoever brings religion to use for political or factional interests will fall anywhere in the world,” Assad said in the interview, again citing Morsi’s overthrow by the military in Egypt.
In the past weeks, Assad’s army has been waging an offensive to regain control of territory it lost to the opposition. The fighting has been particularly fierce in the central city of Homs, parts of which have been an opposition stronghold since the beginning of the revolt more than two years ago.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between government troops and rebels on Thursday in the Khaldiyeh and Bab Houd districts of Homs, and said regime warplanes hit targets there early in the morning. Rebels have held those districts for the past year.
“Homs, Homs, the besieged city,” a man is heard saying in footage showing destruction from the fighting there. The man is heard saying how Assad’s forces have used heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, and have damaged the city’s old market. The video, which was posted on the Internet on Thursday, appears genuine and corresponds with AP reporting from the area.
The Observatory said fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant movement, which has sided with Assad’s forces, have been battling rebels in Homs. Hezbollah fighters helped the Syrian army capture a key town near Lebanon’s border last month, dealing a blow to opposition fighters who have been ferrying supplies and fighters over the border.
Also Wednesday, a government official told The Associated Press that deputy Labor Minister, Rakan Ibrahimn, was seriously wounded in a bombing in Damascus. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said a bomb was attached to Ibrahim’s car, parked in the Barameka neighborhood of Damascus. It went off when he started the car, the official said, adding that the deputy minister was taken to a hospital.
Rebels groups, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups have frequently targeted Syrian government officials, regime loyalists and military installations with car bombs and suicide attacks.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.