CAIRO — Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday repeated promises of reforms and warned of "repercussions" should the West choose to intervene militarily in the uprising threatening his family's four-decade rule.
Assad's remarks during a choreographed question-and-answer session that aired live on state TV did not diverge from the message his regime had sent since the start of the rebellion last spring: Reforms are coming soon, the uprising is the work of militants, and interference from the West is an assault on Syria's sovereignty. He said the uprising could be "controlled."
Insisting he would not step down as urged by the United States and European nations, he said Syria's economy could withstand international sanctions.
Syrian opposition activists, in interviews and through social-networking sites, rejected Assad's words as hollow and vowed to continue their efforts to unseat him. But the opposition lacks cohesion and remains divided on such issues as whether to take up arms now that five months of peaceful demonstrations have failed to bring down — or even severely cripple — the regime.
"Although the regime is very violent toward the Syrian people, we insist the movement maintain its peaceful stand," said Louay Safi, chairman of the Syrian American Council and part of a large opposition gathering this weekend in Istanbul, Turkey. "After months of suppression, there are naturally some groups on the ground who want to use arms. But we are telling them not to do that."
Human rights activists say nearly 2,000 people have died in the government's crackdown on protesters. The regime banned most independent reporting as it unleashed attacks on rebellious towns by land and sea.
Assad's remarks skirted the issue of the violent unrest. Instead, he focused on proposed policy changes that would allow for freer elections, new political parties and fewer restrictions on media.
"Nobody believes him," said Bassam Bitar, a former Syrian diplomat who's now an opposition activist based in Washington. "I am with any international intervention to save Syrian lives."
No one has called for an intervention like the NATO-led campaign to back rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. But the United States and several European allies on Thursday called explicitly for Assad's ouster. Arab states also have turned up the pressure against Assad.
When the TV interviewers asked about the U.S.-led calls for his removal, Assad scoffed at what he described as the hypocrisy of "these colonial states." He said the United States shouldn't lecture about human rights given the "millions" of civilian casualties from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Libya.
Assad said no amount of reform would ever be enough for the West because it seeks to create puppet rulers in the Middle East. He said the Syrian people, not the West, "appointed" him president, so he wasn't worried about the calls for his ouster.