Assad: "Syria will not bow to foreign pressure, but defer to ballot boxes"
President Bashar al-Assad said Syria would not bow down in the face of mounting international pressure over his lethal crackdown on dissent, in an interview with The Sunday Times.
Assad told the British weekly newspaper he was "definitely" prepared to fight and die for Syria if faced with foreign intervention.
"This goes without saying and is an absolute," he said.
The president said he felt sorrow for each drop of Syrian blood spilt but insisted Damascus must go after armed rebel gangs and enforce law and order.
"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue," he said.
"I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it."
Assad accused the Arab League, whose deadline for Syria to stop its clampdown has expired, of creating a pretext for Western military intervention, which would trigger an "earthquake" across the Middle East.
"If they are logical, rational and realistic, they shouldn't do it because the repercussions are very dire. Military intervention will destabilise the region as a whole, and all countries will be affected," he said.
In an interview at the Tishreen Palace in Damascus, the 46-year-old said the solution to the violence which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people since mid-March was not to pull back his troops.
"The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighbouring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order," he said.
"Like any other Syrian, when I see my country's sons bleeding, of course I feel pain and sorrow," he said. "Each spilt drop of blood concerns me personally.
"But my role as president is in deeds, not words and sorrow. My role is to think about the steps I should take to prevent more bloodshed."
The Arab League's deadline expired at 2200 GMT Saturday, but Assad dismissed their move.
"It's been done to show that there's a problem between the Arabs, thus providing Western countries with a pretext to conduct a military intervention against Syria," he said.
The league's decision last week to suspend Syria was "irrelevant", he added.
Asked whether his security forces had been too aggressive, Assad acknowledged mistakes but insisted these were down to individuals, not the state.
"We, as a state, do not have a policy to be cruel with citizens," he said.
"The important thing is to look for the wrongdoers and hold them responsible for their actions."
He said opposition forces had exaggerated the civilian death toll, which was 619 and not 3,500.
He said they were split into three groups: protesters killed in "crossfire" between his security forces and armed gangs; the victims of sectarian murders; and his supporters who have been killed for championing the government.
Furthermore, 800 members of the security forces have died.
"A human being cannot turn the clock back but can act wisely in this matter," he said.
"My role as president -- this is my daily obsession now -- is to know how to stop this bloodshed caused by armed terrorist acts that are hitting some areas."
He insisted elections would be held in February or March, saying there would be a new parliament, a new government and then a new constitution which "will set the basis of how to elect a president", and that he would be prepared to step down if he lost.
"I'm here to serve the country. My country is not here to serve me," he said.
"If the president is a factor of unifying the country, he has to stay. If he is a factor of dividing the country, he has to leave."
He added: "If I am to fight it will be for Syria and the people of Syria."
Assad said he was "naturally calm".
"I do not deal with crises emotionally," he said.
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