President Bashar al-Assad said Syria would not bow down in the face of mounting international pressure over his lethal crackdown on dissent, in an interview with The Sunday Times.
Assad told the British weekly newspaper he was “definitely” prepared to fight and die for Syria if faced with foreign intervention.
“This goes without saying and is an absolute,” he said.
The president said he felt sorrow for each drop of Syrian blood spilt but insisted Damascus must go after armed rebel gangs and enforce law and order.
“The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue,” he said. “I assure you that Syria will not bow down.”
In video footage on the newspaper’s website, Assad said there would be elections in February or March when Syrians would vote for a parliament to create a new constitution and that would include provision for a presidential ballot.
“That constitution will set the basis of how to elect a president, if they need a president or don’t need him,” he said. “They have the elections, they can participate in it. The ballot boxes will decide who should be president.”
Assad accused the Arab League, whose deadline for Syria to stop its clampdown has expired, of creating a pretext for Western military intervention, which would trigger an “earthquake” across the Middle East.
“If they are logical, rational and realistic, they shouldn’t do it because the repercussions are very dire. Military intervention will destabilize the region as a whole, and all countries will be affected,” he said.
In an interview at the Tishreen Palace in Damascus, the 46-year-old said the solution to the violence was not to pull back his troops.
“Like any other Syrian, when I see my country’s sons bleeding, of course I feel pain and sorrow,” he said. “Each spilt drop of blood concerns me personally.
“But my role as president is in deeds, not words and sorrow. My role is to think about the steps I should take to prevent more bloodshed.”
The Arab League’s deadline expired at 2200 GMT Saturday, but Assad dismissed their move.
“It’s been done to show that there’s a problem between the Arabs, thus providing Western countries with a pretext to conduct a military intervention against Syria,” he said.
Activists from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 civilians were killed in raids by government forces on Saturday while two army defectors died when they clashed with the army in Homs, which has become a centre of armed revolt against more than 40 years of Assad family rule.
Asked if his forces had been too aggressive, Assad told the newspaper mistakes had been made but these were the fault of individuals, not the state.
“We, as a state, do not have a policy to be cruel with citizens,” he said.
The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed during the crackdown on the protests which began in March, but Assad disputed this and put the number killed at 619. He told the paper that 800 government forces had been killed.
Syria has come under growing international pressure to stop the crackdown. Britain, a strong critic of Damascus, said on Friday senior figures including Foreign Secretary William Hague would meet Syrian opposition representatives in London next week.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed fear that Syria could be slipping into civil war but said the international community was reluctant to intervene as it had in Libya.
Assad also vowed to prevent further attacks by the Free Syrian Army, which opposition sources said had killed or wounded at least 20 security police in an assault on an Air Force Intelligence Complex near Damascus two days ago.
“The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighboring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order,” he told the paper.
However early Sunday morning at least two rocket-propelled grenades hit a main ruling Baath Party building in Damascus, residents said, in the first insurgent attack reported inside the Syrian capital since uprising began against Assad.