Challenge Syria and face war, warns Assad
President claims intervention from West will lead to 'new Afghanistan'
Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, has warned that Western action against his country would cause an "earthquake" that would "burn the whole region".
In his first interview with a Western journalist since Syria's seven-month uprising began, Assad told Britain's Sunday Telegraph that intervention against his regime could cause "another Afghanistan".
Western countries "are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely," he said. "But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different.
"Syria is the hub now in this region and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake . . . Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans? Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region."
Thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets in two Syrian cities on Friday to demand the imposition of a Libyan-style no-fly zone over the country. According to the United Nations, at least 3,000 civilians, including 187 children, have been killed during protests against the regime. Thousands more have been imprisoned. The government says 1,200 members of the security forces have also died.
Assad admitted that "many mistakes" had been made by his forces in the early part of the uprising, but insisted that only "terrorists" were now being targeted.
"We have very few police, only the army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda," he said. "If you sent in your army to the streets, the same thing would happen. Now, we are only fighting terrorists. That's why the fighting is becoming much less."
On Friday alone, however, opposition groups claimed that 40 people were killed by the regime, and government troops shelled a district of Homs, a centre of opposition.
Seventeen soldiers also died in overnight clashes with suspected army deserters in the city, which foreign journalists are forbidden to enter.
Syria was condemned yesterday by Arab League foreign ministers for its "continued killings of civilians".
Assad insisted that he had responded differently to the Arab Spring than other, deposed Arab leaders.
"We didn't go down the road of stubborn government," he said. "Six days after [the protests began] I commenced reform."