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Syria's Assad laments Arab League mission's 'failure'

In a rare public speech at Damascus University, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would not step down from his post and called the Arab League mission to Syria 'a failure.'

Arab League observers

Arab League observers have been in Syria since late December

In the first speech since allowing 165 Arab League observers into his country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad criticized the "failure" of the mission. The observers have been in Syria for two weeks in an effort to end the violence that has swept the country.

"The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests," Assad said during his speech Tuesday at Damascus University. "We shouldn't be surprised it's failed today."

Assad said he would "not close the door" to an Arab solution as long as it respected Syria's sovereignty.

This week the number of observers from the Arab League is expected to be increased to 200.

Meanwhile, the Arab League on Tuesday condemned recent attacks on its monitors in Latakia and Deir Ezzor. Its chief, Nabil al-Arabi, said that the Syrian government was "totally responsible for the protection of the members of the observer mission."

"The Arab League denounces the irresponsible action and acts of violence against the League's observers," he added.

'External conspiracy'

In just the fourth speech since the beginning of the uprising in March, which has claimed 5,000 lives according to UN estimates, Assad repeated claims that the unrest was the result of an external conspiracy provoked by regional and international parties.

Bashar al-Assad

Assad rarely makes public speeches

"The mask has been unveiled from the faces of people hoping to destabilize this country," Assad said.

Foreign media were playing their part as well in "trying to tarnish Syria's image abroad," Assad said, adding he would not bow to pressure to step down.

He called on Syrians to stick together during trying times, saying the interests of the nation were more important than the interests of individuals.

"These regrettable events have been a serious test for us," Assad said. "It makes my heart bleed, as well as the hearts of Syrians."

Fighting terror with an 'iron fist'

Regarding the violence against anti-government protesters, Assad said he never issued orders for security forces to fire on the people. The only times forces were given the OK to fire were in cases of self-defense, he said.

Assad added that "there is no tolerance with terrorism or with those who use weapons to kill," and that terrorists would be hit "with an iron fist." A suicide bombing killed 26 people in Damascus on Friday.

Ten months into the uprising in Syria, political changes may be on the horizon. Assad announced that a referendum would be held in March to replace the country's constitution. The new constitution would focus on inclusion of all political parties. A referendum would be followed by a general election.

Despite calls for him to resign, Assad said he would not step down unless the people voted him out of office in elections, which could take place in May.

Author: Matt Zuvela, Nicole Goebel (AFP, AP, Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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