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Syria's defiant president Bashar Assad hits out

Syria's President Bashar Assad yesterday called on Syrians to defend their country against religious extremists seeking to destroy the nation.

As he outlined his vision for a peaceful settlement to the civil war in a one-hour speech to the nation, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria”.

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow him first. Syria's opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president's departure.

Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Assad told the hall packed with supporters that “we are in a state of war”.

He added: “We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other.

“It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals.”

Assad has rarely spoken since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011.

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