IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Syria's Assad warns of 'earthquake' if West intervenes

Western powers risk causing a major conflict in the Middle East if they intervene in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad says in an interview with a British newspaper.
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's hold pictures of al-Assad during a rally at al-Sabaa Bahrat square in Damascus
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's hold pictures in Damascus on Oct. 12Khaled Al-hariri / REUTERS
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Western powers risk causing an "earthquake" that would burn the Middle East if they intervene in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Assad's warning came ahead of Syrian government talks on Sunday with the Arab League aimed at starting a dialogue between the government and opposition and ending violence that has escalated across Syria in recent days.

In the article, billed as his first interview with Western media since the uprising began, Assad is quoted as saying that his forces made "many mistakes" in the early days of the seven-month-old uprising, but now he claims they are targeting "terrorists" only and that the fighting is decreasing.

However, activists said Syrian forces killed more than 50 civilians in the last 48 hours and one activist group said suspected army deserters killed 30 soldiers in clashes in the city of Homs and in an ambush in the northern province of Idlib on Saturday.

UN estimates put the civilian death toll at about 3,000, including almost 200 children. Since the start of protests in March, Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on gunmen they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.

(Editor's note: NBC News' Richard Engel recently traveled to Syria and will report on the uprising there for the debut episode of on Monday.)

Assad's suppression of the seven-month uprising has drawn criticism from the United Nations and Arab League. Western governments have called on him to step down and imposed sanctions on Syrian oil exports and state businesses.

Western countries "are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely", Assad told Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Demonstrators protesting against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad march through the streets after Friday prayers in Hula, near Homs October 28, 2011. Picture taken October 28, 2011. REUTERS/Handout (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSX80001

"But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different."

"Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake."

Military option?
NATO military intervention in Libya played a decisive role in toppling Moammar Gadhafi, the third Arab leader to be overthrown after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Western nations have shown no appetite to repeat their Libyan operation in Syria, but demonstrators are increasingly calling for a "no-fly zone" over their country.

"Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?" Assad said. "Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region."

Since the start of protests in March, Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on foreign-backed gunmen and religious extremists they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.

Syria has barred most international media, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and authorities.

But the resilience of the protesters, the determination of authorities to crush dissent and the emerging armed insurgency have combined to make Syria's turmoil one of the most intractable confrontations of this year's Arab uprisings.

Assad, whose father put down an armed Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing many thousands, said the latest crisis was part of the same conflict.

"We've been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them," he said.

Authorities had made "many mistakes" in the early part of the uprising, but he said the situation had now improved and that he had started implementing reform within a week of the troubles erupting in mid-March.

"The pace of reform is not too slow. The vision needs to be mature. It would take only 15 seconds to sign a law, but if it doesn't fit your society, you'll have division," he said.

Assad's opponents say that although he lifted emergency law and gave citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds, his promises of reform ring hollow while security forces kill protesters and arrest thousands of people. They also say protests are driven by a desire for greater freedoms, not by an Islamist agenda.

'Urgent message'
Friday's shooting of demonstrators prompted Arab ministers to issue their strongest call yet on Assad to end the killing of civilians.

The Arab League's committee on the Syrian crisis sent an "urgent message to the Syrian government expressing its severe discontent over the continued killing of Syrian civilians."

A source at Syria's Foreign Ministry, quoted by state media, said the Arab League statement was "based on media lies" and urged the committee to "help restore stability in Syria instead of stirring sedition".

An Arab League ministerial group is due to meet Syrian officials on Sunday in Qatar to press for dialogue between the government and opposition.

Syria, a majority Sunni Muslim nation of 20 million people, is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Aware of potentially seismic geopolitical implications if Assad were to fall, leaders in the mostly Sunni Arab world have been cautious about criticising the Syrian president as they struggle with domestic challenges to their own rule.

Sunni ascendancy in Syria could affect Israel and shake up regional alliances. Assad strengthened ties with Shi'ite Iran while also upholding his father's policy of avoiding conflict with Israel on the occupied Golan Heights frontier.

Syria has barred most international media, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and authorities.