BEIRUT – In his first interview since December, Syrian President Bashar Assad has insisted his regime is fighting back against foreign mercenaries who want to overthrow him, not innocent Syrians aspiring for democracy in a yearlong uprising.
The interview with Russian TV showed Assad is still standing his ground, despite widespread international condemnation over his deadly crackdown on dissent.
"There are foreign mercenaries, some of them still alive," Assad said in an interview broadcast Wednesday on Russian state news channel Rossiya-24. "They are being detained and we are preparing to show them to the world."
Assad also cautioned against meddling in Syria, warning neighboring nations that have served as transit points for contraband weapons being smuggled into the country that "if you sow chaos in Syria you may be infected by it yourself."
He did not elaborate, but rebels and anti-regime activists say Syrian forces have mined many of the smuggling routes where weapons flow into Syria -- mainly from neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, still has a firm grip on power in Syria some 14 months into a revolt that has torn at the country's fabric and threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East.
The U.N. estimated in March that the violence has killed more than 9,000 people, and hundreds more have been killed since then as a revolt that began with mostly peaceful calls for reform transforms into an armed insurgency.
A group known as the Free Syrian Army is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms, targeting military checkpoints and other government sites.
A U.N. observer team with more than 200 members has done little to quell the bloodshed, and some even have been caught up in the violence themselves.
Six observers had to be evacuated from a northern town controlled by the opposition Wednesday, a day after a roadside bomb hit their convoy and left them stranded overnight with rebel forces. None of the observers was wounded, and it was not clear who was behind the attack.
The shooting started as the convoy arrived in the opposition area, said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan.
"The U.N. observers were in their cars and heard the shooting but did not witness anyone being killed, nor could they ascertain the direction of the fire," he said. "At the same time, the bomb exploded near one of the vehicles, damaging the hood."
Fawzi said people who had gathered around the observers ducked behind the vehicles, and according to one observer apparently some people were injured when the bomb exploded.
When the shooting subsided, he said, the observers left their vehicles and proceeded on foot to a Free Syrian Army location where they spent the night.
The U.N. said the team was treated well during their stay with rebels and returned to their base in Hama on Wednesday.
As the convoy arrived in the opposition area, the shooting started. The UN observers were in their cars and heard the shooting but did not witness anyone being killed, nor could they ascertain the direction of the fire. At the same time, the bomb exploded near one of the vehicles, damaging the hood. People who had gathered around them ducked behind the vehicles. When the bomb exploded, apparently some of the people were injured, according to an observer. When the shooting subsided, they disembarked and proceeded on foot to the FSA location, where they spent the night.
Assad, 46, denies that there is a popular will behind the uprising, saying foreign extremists and terrorists are driving the revolt.
Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread.
The opposition describes Assad's claims as ludicrous, and says the regime's attacks on peaceful protesters led many to take up arms.
"There are no foreign mercenaries in Syria," said Rima Fleihan, a Jordan-based Syrian writer and activist. "The opposition doesn't need them because people across Syrian provinces have taken to the streets. This is a revolution that is being made by the Syrian people."
Assad has acknowledged there are genuine calls for reform, although the opposition says he has offered only cosmetic changes that do little to change a culture where any whisper of dissent could lead to arrest and torture. On Wednesday, Assad pointed to recent parliamentary elections as the cornerstone of his reform agenda.
The elections were the first under a new constitution, adopted three months ago, that allows political parties to compete with Assad's ruling Baath party.
But the opposition boycotted the May 7 polls and said they were orchestrated by the regime to strengthen Assad's grip on power. Parliament is considered little more than a rubber stamp in Syria, where the president and a tight coterie of advisers holds the real power.
Assad said the opposition Syrian National Council's boycott discredited the group.
"To call for boycotting the elections, that's the equivalent of calling for a boycott of the people," Assad said in remarks translated into Russian. "And how can you boycott the people of whom you consider yourself the representative?"
"So I don't think that they have any kind of weight or significance within Syria," he added.
Assad's last major media interview was in December, with ABC's Barbara Walters. But it was widely seen as a blow to the Syrian leader, who said he never ordered the brutal suppression of the uprising and insisted only a "crazy person" would kill his own people.
The decision to grant a rare interview to Russian TV speaks to Damascus' close ties with Moscow. Russia has been Syria's most powerful and loyal ally over the course of the uprising. Syria is the Kremlin's last ally in the Middle East, offering Moscow its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union and a stable market for the Russian arms industry.
Russia, along with China, has used its veto power to shield Damascus from U.N. sanctions.
Annan, the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, is expected to visit Syria this month, Assad said. He added that he intends to complain to Annan about what he called one-sided criticism of Syria.
The West "talks about violence, but violence from the side of the government, not a word about terrorists," Assad said. "We are waiting for this, as we have before. Mr. Annan will come to Syria this month, and I will ask him about this matter."
Annan brokered a peace plan that calls for a cease-fire by both sides of the conflict, and a dialogue to help quell the crisis. Western powers have pinned their hopes on the plan, in part because they are running out of options. There is little support for military intervention of the type that helped bring down Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, and several rounds of sanctions and other attempts to isolate Assad have done little to stop the bloodshed.
On Wednesday, the Syrian government snubbed a U.N. committee when it failed to appear or report on any efforts to prevent the use of torture, committee members in Geneva said.
The Committee Against Torture said the Syrian delegation was a no-show at a scheduled meeting on whether it is complying with a U.N. convention against torture.
A committee statement cited "widespread violations" of the convention by the government and alleged abuses by armed opposition groups.
Committee chair Claudio Grossman said the government has carried out widespread killings, torture in hospitals, detention centers and secret detention facilities, and torture of children and sexual torture of male detainees.