President Bashar al-Assad has pledged to “live and die” in Syria, warning any Western invasion to topple him would have catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and beyond.
Assad’s defiant remarks coincided with a landmark meeting in Qatar of Syria’s fractious opposition groups to hammer out an agreement on a new umbrella body uniting rebel groups inside and outside Syria.
Opposition forces are coming under growing international pressure to put their house in order and prepare for a post-Assad transition.
The Syrian leader, battling a 19-month-old uprising against his rule, appeared to reject an idea floated by Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday that a safe exit and foreign exile for the London-educated Assad could end the civil war.
“I am not a puppet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country,” he told Russia Today news channel, in an interview to be broadcast today. “I am Syrian. I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”
Russia Today’s website, which published a transcript of the interview conducted in English, showed footage of Assad speaking to journalists and walking down stairs outside a villa.
The UK, US and its allies want the Syrian leader out, but have held back from arming his opponents or enforcing a no-fly zone, let alone invading.
The 47-year-old president said he doubted the West would risk the global cost of intervening in Syria, whose conflict has already added to instability in the Middle East and killed some 38,000 people.
He added: “I think that the price of this invasion, if it happened, is going to be bigger than the whole world can afford… It will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I do not think the West is going in this direction but if they do so, nobody can tell what is next.”
The Qatar talks underline the country’s central role in the effort to end Assad’s rule as the Gulf state tries to position itself as a player in a post-Assad Syria. Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani urged the Syrian opposition to set personal disputes aside and unite, according to a source inside the closed-door session.
“Come on, get a move on in order to win recognition from the international community,” the source quoted him as saying.
Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu delivered a similar message, saying, according to the source: “We need efficient counterparts – it is time to unite.”
In Syria, more than 90 people were killed in fighting yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Turkey’s Hatay border province, two civilians, a woman and a young man, were wounded by stray bullets fired from Syria, according to an official.