President Bashar al-Assad Sunday offered a road map to end Syria's civil war in a rare speech in which he branded the opposition as "slaves" of the West and told foreign powers to end their support for rebels.
The main Syrian opposition grouping, the National Coalition, immediately rejected the plan while Britain described Assad's speech, his first in public in seven months, as "beyond hypocritical". The European Union repeated its calls that he step aside.
Assad, speaking to wild applause from ecstatic crowds packed into a cultural centre in Damascus, outlined a plan he said was aimed at resolving the 21-month conflict which according to the UN has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
First step, he said, was for foreign powers to end their support for armed rebels seeking to topple his regime.
"Right after that our military operations will cease," he said, adding without elaborating that a mechanism to monitor such a truce would be established.
The government would then step up contacts to convene a national dialogue conference with regime opponents "from inside and outside" the country, who do not take orders from abroad.
"We will hold dialogue with (those who are) the masters (of their decisions) not the slaves (of foreign powers)," Assad said.
The national dialogue conference would draft a charter which would then be put to a referendum, whereafter parliamentary polls would be held, followed by the creation of a new government, said Assad.
Any resolution of the conflict, however, he stressed, must be purely Syrian and "there must be agreement at the national dialogue conference."
"We are now faced with a state of war in every sense of the word, an external aggression more deadly and dangerous than conventional wars implemented through a handful of Syrians and many foreigners," Assad said in the speech which was televised live.
He said the conflict was not one between the government and the opposition but between the "nation and its enemies" saying of his opponents: "This is not a loyal opposition but a gang of killers.
"The one thing that is sure that those who we face today are those who carry the Al-Qaeda ideology," Assad said, repeating previous assertions that "foreign terrorists" are behind the Syrian uprising.
The National Coalition, which insists Assad steps aside before it is willing to enter dialogue, said his speech was directed at those ready to see him remain in power.
Assad will not accept "any initiative that does not restore stability to his regime and put him at the helm of control", spokesman Walid al-Bunni told AFP by phone.
"He wants negotiating partners of his own choosing and will not accept any initiative that could meet the aspirations of the Syrian people or ultimately lead to his departure and the dismantling of his regime."
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad's first speech to the nation since June was full of "empty promises" and would "fool no-one".
Hague took to Twitter to vent his anger about the speech, writing: "AssadSpeech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one."
In Brussels, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a short statement: "We will look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition."
Assad last spoke in public on June 3 when he addressed parliament in Damascus. In November he gave an interview to Russian television in which he dismissed suggestions he would go into exile, saying he would "live and die" in Syria.
Until Sunday, he had not again commented on the conflict which has ravaged his country, with vast swathes of northern Syria now in the hands of rebels, who also control an arc of towns on the eastern outskirts of Damascus and are locked in battle for control of major cities, including Homs and Aleppo.
During his latest visit to Damascus, UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had mentioned a plan, based on a Geneva declaration, that talked of a ceasefire, forming a government and holding parliamentary and presidential polls.
The Geneva plan, agreed in June following talks among global powers and the UN, also envisages the establishment of a transitional government, but it does not refer to Assad going -- a key demand of the opposition.
Violence on the ground continued unabated, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday reporting that troops bombarded rebel positions on the outskirts of the capital overnight, including in Beit Saham near the Damascus airport road, the southwest town of Daraya and Douma to the northeast.
© 2013 AFP
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