BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad has warned that if rebel forces battling to overthrow him take power in Syria, they could destabilise the Middle East for decades.
The Syrian leader, locked in a two-year conflict that he says has been fuelled by his regional foes, also criticised Turkey’s leaders as “foolish and immature”, and Arab neighbours who he said were arming and sheltering rebel fighters.
“If the unrest in Syria leads to the partitioning of the country, or if the terrorist forces take control ... the situation will inevitably spill over into neighbouring countries and create a domino effect throughout the Middle East and beyond,” he said in an interview with Turkish television.
Turmoil would spread “east, west, north and south. This will lead to a state of instability for years and maybe decades to come,” Assad said in the interview, posted by the Syrian presidency on the Internet.
His remarks were an acid reiteration of his long-standing argument that Syria and the region will face a bleak future if he falls. His foes argue that his determination to keep power at all costs has already plunged his country into disaster.
The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict. Daily death tolls of around 200 are not uncommon, monitoring groups say. More than a million refugees have fled the country and the Syrian Red Crescent says nearly 4 million have been displaced internally.
Neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan are both struggling to cope with the flood of refugees, while the sectarian element of the conflict - with mainly Sunni Muslim and Islamist fighters battling a president from Syria’s Alawite minority - has also raised tensions in neighbours such as Lebanon and Iraq.
While accusing opponents of using “sectarian slogans”, Assad said the essence of the battle was between “forces and states seeking to take their people back into historic times, and states wanting to take their peoples into a prosperous future”.
He appeared to be referring to the Sunni Muslim Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, absolute monarchies that have supported efforts to arm insurgents in an uprising which began with peaceful protests for reform and spiralled into civil war.
Assad said Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was recruiting fighters with Qatari money to wage war in Syria, but warned his former friend that the bloodshed could not easily be contained: “The fire in Syria will burn Turkey. Unfortunately he does not see this reality.”
Erdogan, he said, “has not uttered a single truthful word since the crisis in Syria began”.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Assad lived in his own “imaginary world”.
“Such accusations are baseless and Turkey does not take such accusations seriously. Such claims are aimed at diverting attentions from the ongoing bloodshed in Syria.”
NOT “HIDING IN A BUNKER”
Assad also condemned the Arab League, which has suspended Syria’s membership and last month invited opposition leaders Moaz Alkhatib and Ghassan Hitto to attend a summit in his place.
“The Arab League itself lacks legitimacy,” he said. “It is an organisation that represents Arab states and not Arab people. It has lacked legitimacy for a long time because these Arab states themselves ... do not reflect the will of the Arab people.”
Assad also dismissed Western countries that condemned his crackdown on the protest as hypocrites. “France and Britain committed massacres in Libya with the support and cover of the United States. The Turkish government is knee-deep in Syrian blood. Are these states really concerned about Syrian blood?”
Responding to rumours of his assassination spread by activists and fighters over the last two weeks, Assad said he was living as ever in Damascus, despite rebel advances in the outskirts of the city and regular mortar attacks on its centre.
“I am not hiding in a bunker. These rumours (aim) to undermine the morale of the Syrian people. I neither live on a Russian warship nor in Iran. I live in Syria, in the same place I always did.”
Assad, who has lost swathes of territory in the north and east of his country, is also battling to keep back rebel militias on the eastern and southern edges of Damascus.
In recent weeks, rebels have gained ground in the southern province of Deraa, cradle of the uprising, which could give them a platform for a fiercer assault on the capital.
The fighting in Deraa has alarmed Israel, which fears that four decades of relative calm on the front between the Syrian military and its own troops on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights could be threatened as Islamist rebel brigades take control of the Syrian side of the line.
Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen; Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Kevin Liffey