Syrian President Defiant, Blames Terrorists and Foreign Meddlers Such as ABC News

In a rare speech today, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria again blamed the unrest in his country on terrorists, foreign meddling and media bias, criticizing ABC News in particular.

In the long and often-rambling address, Assad said he has the support of his people, will not step down and that they are close to victory. Terrorists will be "hit with an iron fist," he said.

Assad also singled out ABC News, saying his December interview with Barbara Walters was edited in a way to deliberately distort its meaning, but offering no specifics. "I had to re-watch myself. When I watched myself, I believed what I said. It was me who said these words," he told a supportive crowd at Damascus University.

"If they were able to convince me of the lie, what about others? Luckily, we have original versions [of the tapes]."

A full transcript of the interview clearly indicates that Assad's words were aired by ABC News as he stated them, with no distortion.

Among other comments, Assad told Walters last month that he had not ordered a bloody crackdown against protesters who were demanding that he resign.

In a speech that ran almost two hours today, Assad attacked other Arab countries for failing to support his regime, accusing the Arab League, which has suspended Syria's membership, of being a tool that has been a failure since its founding 60 years ago. "Can a body live without a heart? They said Syria is the heart of the Arab League," Assad said to applause. "Arabism is a belonging, identity by history, not a diploma granted by an organization."

The Arab League has sent around 160 observers to Syria to monitor the crackdown, a mission that has been criticized by the opposition for failing to stop the violence. The league said Sunday the mission would continue and be augmented with more observers.

Assad broke little policy ground today, his fourth speech since the crackdown began in March. He regurgitated oft-repeated regime claims that the violence that has left more than 5,000 people dead, according to the United Nation, is being carried out by foreign-supported terrorists that "plunge you into despair."

"Our priority now is to regain security, which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand," he said. "We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."

In addition to the reforms Assad says his government has implemented, such as lifting the Emergency Law and welcoming political parties besides the Baath Party into the fold, Assad said a referendum would be held for a new constitution. "After legislation has been drawn up and a constitution, we will call a referendum, in the first week of March," he said, adding that the referendum would be followed by elections, possibly in May.

Opposition activists say none of the promised reforms in the past 10 months have materialized and Assad said that reforms cannot be carried out without first "dealing with the situation on the ground."

Assad said his two main priorities are reform and fighting terrorism and insisted that he has "been guided by public support."

"We are nearing the end of the crisis," he said." Victory is near because we can be steadfast. We know our enemies. God willing, we will be victorious."

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