BEIRUT – Syria's foreign minister said Wednesday the Damascus government would soon present "an unprecedented example of democracy" in the troubled Middle East, an extraordinary promise in a country facing an uprising against an authoritarian system in place for decades.
Speaking during a televised news conference, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem's comments were the latest attempt by the regime to blunt three months of widespread street protests against President Bashar Assad's autocratic rule, a movement that has persisted despite a bloody crackdown reportedly killing hundreds.
"We will offer an example of democracy," Moallem said, when asked about his vision for Syria in three months. "There will be social justice, equality before the law and accountability."
The statements by the longtime trusted Assad aide went beyond the vague promises of reform the president made in a Monday speech, and amounted to a rare official admission that Syria has ignored basic democratic principles.
Moallem called for regime opponents to enter into political talks, and urged Syrian exiles to return, pledging that "even the harshest opponent" of the regime will not be arrested.
The news conference appeared designed to present a picture of regime confidence at a time when Assad is coming under increased attack abroad and at home, where the protesters call for his ouster.
The foreign minister said the international community is mired in the "scandals" of its military intervention in Libya and wouldn't repeat the experience in Syria, adding that Arab countries "without exception" supported Damascus. The Arab League on Monday issued a statement of support for Syria and opposition to foreign intervention there.
Moallem lashed out at the government's critics, particularly Europe, which imposed sanctions on Assad and members of the leadership over its deadly crackdown on protesters.
He said European Union sanctions targeted the livelihood of Syrian people and "that amounts to (an act) of war."
The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Damascus unleashed military and other security forces to crush the protest movement, which sprang to life in March inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
The U.S. also has imposed sanctions, but the European move was a personal blow to Assad, who studied in Britain and made a high priority of efforts to bring Syria back into the global mainstream.
"We will forget that Europe is on the map and we will look east, south and toward every hand that is extended to us," Moallem said. "The world is not just made up of Europe."
He criticized France, Syria's former colonial ruler, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy has been seen as generally supportive of Assad in recent years, visiting Syria twice in 2008 and 2009.
"France must stop practicing its colonialist policies as it is doing under the slogan of human rights," Moallem said.
He said Syria would freeze its membership in the EuroMed partnership, a loose program of cooperation between the European Union and the nations on its southern rim, including Syria, that was set up in the mid-1990s.
Moallem also denied that Syrian allies Iran and Hezbollah are helping the regime put down unrest. The U.S. has accused Iran of sending reinforcements and equipment to Syria.
"There is Iranian and Hezbollah political support for Syria to transcend this crisis and support for the reforms announced by President Bashar Assad," he said. "But there is absolutely no military support on the ground."
Of Turkey, whose leaders have called the Syrian crackdown "savagery," Moallem said Damascus wants to preserve its relations with Ankara. "I hope that they will reconsider their position," he said.
Assad has appeared in public just three times since the uprising began, most recently on Monday when he made general promises of reform that failed to satisfy the opposition, which at this point says it will accept nothing less than the downfall of the Assad family regime, in power for 40 years.
In that speech at Damascus University, the president said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but he alleged once more than "saboteurs" were exploiting the movement.
Opposition spokesmen dismissed the speech as too little, too late. But Moallem on Wednesday repeatedly called on Syrians to take part in the national dialogue, saying, "Whoever wants to test our seriousness should come to the national dialogue to be a partner in shaping the future." He did not discuss a timetable for such talks.
On Tuesday, the regime mobilized tens of thousands of its supporters, who converged on squares in several major cities. "The people want Bashar Assad!" some shouted, releasing black, white and red balloons — colors of the Syrian flag.
They soon clashed with opposition supporters, drawing in security forces. At least seven people were killed, activists said.
Although activists accused the regime of organizing the rallies and forcing people to attend, the fact that tens of thousands of people were on the streets was a reminder that Assad still enjoys support, although it is dwindling.
His main base is among the business elite and middle classes who have benefited from his economic policies, and among minority groups that fear being targeted if the Sunni Muslim majority takes over, replacing leadership drawn from Syria's minority Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Although the regime blames the unrest on foreign conspirators, the opposition insists there's no foreign involvement, and the scattered nature of the protests appears to indicate broad grassroots support and little central planning.
The unrest has sent thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring Turkey. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that 500 to 1,000 people a day have been crossing from northern Syria into Turkey since June 7, and more than 10,000 were being sheltered by Turkish authorities in four border camps.