11.08.12

Syria’s Assad to West: ‘I Am Tougher Than Gaddafi’

Does the reelection of Obama spell the end for Assad? In an interview on Russian TV, Syria’s embattled president tells the West to back off. Mike Giglio reports.

Bashar al-Assad has taken to the Russian airwaves to tell the world that he’s in Syria to stay—and to warn the West and its allies of dire consequences if they try to force him from power.

The embattled Syrian president, whose government is mired in a bloody fight against a rebellion now pushing into its 20th month, vowed that he will “live and die in Syria” in an interview with the TV station Russia Today.

"I am not a puppet, and the West did not manufacture me in order that I leave to the West or any other country,” he said. “I am Syrian-made.”

The combative remarks, coming in the midst of a fresh round of speculation over the possibility of international intervention, seemed telegraphed to a Western audience. Speaking in English, Assad warned that the fallout from foreign engagement in Syria would be felt across the globe. “I do not believe the West is heading in this direction, but if they do, nobody can tell what will happen afterward," he said. "I think that the cost of a foreign invasion of Syria, if it happens, would be bigger than the entire world can bear.”

Just this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Assad’s negotiated exile to a foreign country might a good option for ending the war. (A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department has since countered that “those who’ve committed abuses need to be held to account.”) Britain’s foreign minister, meanwhile, said the country would begin talking directly with rebel groups—an idea that has reportedly been weighed by America as well.

And there have been predictions that the reelection of U.S. President Barack Obama might pave the way for more aggressive American action. Members of Syria’s notoriously fractured opposition are convened in Doha this week as part of a U.S.-sponsored effort to create a new and improved body that would be a more credible partner for foreign governments in providing the rebellion with support.

‘We are the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region.’

But Assad—who has threatened that the Syrian conflict will become a regional one if foreign powers enter the fray, while warning that Syria will become a hotbed of extremism if he goes—doubled down on those ideas in the interview with Russia Today, excerpts of which were posted to its website on Thursday ahead of a full airing on Friday. “We are the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region,” he said. “[Foreign intervention] will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“I am tougher than Gaddafi," Assad added, according to a tweet from Russia Today’s top editor, referring to Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator who was killed last year after being deposed by a NATO-backed rebellion.

Russia Today, also known as RT, is a state-funded, English-language news channel that broadcasts in countries across the globe and claims to reach 430 million people. It has long been criticized as a vehicle for Kremlin propaganda—and it made headlines earlier this year as the home of a talk show hosted by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, has repeatedly joined China in vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at cracking down on the Syrian government.

But as the conflict grinds on in a bloody fashion that, according to activist groups, has left at least 38,000 people dead, the rebels continue to apply pressure of their own—with fighting now gripping even the heavily secured capital. “It’s nonstop shelling. It was on the suburbs, then on the southern districts of Damascus, and now it’s on Midan itself,” one Damascus-based activist said today, referring to a neighborhood in the heart of the city. “It looks like the shelling keeps getting closer to the center.”