Syria’s Assad speaks to pro-regime crowd in Damascus square, says ‘conspirers’ will fail

Syria President Bashar al-Assad addresses a pro-regime crowd in a surprise appearance and for the first time in Damascus’ Umayyad Square. (Reuters)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed a crowd of thousands of his supporters in Damascus on Wednesday, in a surprise public appearance following 10 months of unrest.

The crowd shouted “Shabiha forever, for your eyes Assad,” a reference to pro-Assad militiamen who have frequently fought pro-democracy protesters.

Assad’s wife Asma and their two children joined him for his surprise appearance in the capital’s central Umayyad Square.

“I belong to this street,” Assad said, adding that Syria faced foreign conspirators. “Without a doubt, we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans,” he told thousands of cheering supporters.

Assad’s appearance came after his speech on Tuesday in which he blamed foreign plotters for the deadly 10-month-old protests against his regime and vowed to crush their “terrorism” with an iron fist.

“I came here to draw from your strength. Thanks to you, I have never felt weak,” he said.

Amid the finger-pointing, activists said four civilians were killed on Wednesday near the central city of Hama and that loyalist troops were clashing with deserters.

Assad denied on Tuesday that security forces had orders to fire on civilian protesters and said the unrest would only end “when the flow of funds and weapons coming from abroad stops.”

Washington said Assad had used the speech to try to deflect the attention of his people from the fact that he had committed himself to end the violence.

“He’s doing everything but what he needs to do,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Meanwhile, attacks on Arab observers in Syria are raising doubts about the sustainability of the Arab League mission there, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

“The Arab League observers could not perform their duties as desired. They met many obstacles,” Abdessalem said at a press conference in Ankara Tuesday with his Tunisian counterpart Rafik Abdessalem.

“The attack in Latakia raised doubts about the sustainability of the mission,” he added.

Davutoglu was referring to an incident in which two Kuwaiti members of the Arab League team were injured in an attack on Monday by what the Gulf state said were unidentified protesters.

“We will go on supporting this mission of the Arab League,” the Turkish minister said, but added: “It is unacceptable that the bloodshed continues while the mission is still there.”

The Arab League monitors have been in Syria since December 26 to oversee a deal to protect civilians in the country, where the regime has waged a bloody crackdown on opposition protesters since mid-March.

The death toll in Syria, which the United Nations says exceeds 5,000, has kept on climbing despite the presence of the observers.

Clinton says Assad speech ‘chilling’

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that Assad gave a “chillingly, cynical speech.”

“Instead of taking responsibility, what we hear from President Assad in his chillingly cynical speech yesterday was only making excuses blaming foreign countries,” Clinton said.

Clinton said he described “conspiracies so vast that it now includes the Syrian opposition, the international community, all international media outlets, the Arab League itself,” she said.

Clinton spoke during a press conference with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani whose country is a member of the Arab League, which sent monitors to Syria in a bid to end the violence against protesters.

Arab League observer quits

An Arab League observer in unrest-swept Syria said Wednesday he has quit the mission, accusing the regime of committing a series of war crimes against its people and of duping his colleagues.

“I withdrew from the Arab observers mission because I found myself serving the regime, and not part of an independent observer group,” Anwar Malek told an Arabic satellite news channel.

The Syrian regime is playing “dirty,” charged the Algerian observer. “It even began killing its supporters to convince the Arab observers that it is carrying out its duties and to gain their sympathy.”

“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled. The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime,” Malek said.

“What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime isn’t committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people,” he said. “Children are killed and they are starved and terrorized.”

The observer who said he spent 15 days in the flashpoint central city of Homs said it must be declared a “disaster” zone. “I saw charred and skinned bodies that had been tortured,” said Malek.

Soldiers “attempting to flee or defect were executed,” said Malek. “I saw three bodies of executed soldiers. They were shot from the back.”

Also on Monday, two Kuwaiti army officers in the observer mission were “slightly hurt” in an attack by “unidentified protesters,” the Gulf state’s defense ministry has reported.

The observers were attacked while heading to the coastal city of Latakia, said the ministry.

Malek accused the Syrian regime of sending “spies and intelligence officers with our team to act as drivers and minders to get our information, and as soon as we left an area they attacked people.”

U.S. reduces Syria embassy staff

Meanwhile, the United States said on Wednesday it had further reduced the number of staff at its embassy in Damascus because of security concerns in Syria, where Syrian authorities are seeking to crush anti-government protests.

“The Department has decided to further reduce the number of employees present in Damascus, and has ordered a number of employees to depart Syria as soon as possible,” the State Department said in a travel notice.

The United States in October ordered family members of embassy staff to depart and restricted staffing. The new travel notice said the further staff reductions would mean that the consular section would now operate by appointment only.

“Our ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency is extremely limited and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation,” the notice said.

The United States has repeatedly warned U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s government has mounted a violent crackdown to crush months of popular protests.

The U.S. ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, returned to Syria early in December after having been recalled to Washington in October because of threats to his safety.

The Obama administration has repeatedly called for Assad to leave office because of Syria’s handling of the protests, which the United Nations estimates has killed more than 5,000 civilians since unrest erupted in March.

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