Assad says Syria buffer zone "unrealistic"

BEIRUT Wed Aug 29, 2012 5:56am EDT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad said talk of a Western-imposed buffer zone on Syrian territory was unrealistic and that the situation in his country was "better", but more time was needed to win the conflict against rebels trying to overthrow him.

Assad was speaking in an interview with Syria's Addounia television, excerpts of which were broadcast on Wednesday.

The president, responding to rumors concerning his whereabouts since a July bombing in Damascus, said he was speaking from the presidential palace in the capital.

"I believe that talk about a buffer zone is not practical, even for those countries which are playing a hostile role (against Syria)," Assad said.

Neighboring Turkey has floated the idea of a "safe zone" to be set up for civilians under foreign protection as fighting has intensified in the 17-month-old uprising against Assad.

French President Francois Hollande said on Monday his country supported the Turkish proposal.

Turkey once cultivated good relations with Assad but turned against him over his violent response to the uprising. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has become one of Assad's harshest critics and has raised the possibility of military intervention in Syria if Kurdish rebels became a threat there.

"Will we go backwards because of the ignorance of some Turkish officials? ... (The Turkish people) have stood by us during the crisis," Assad said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged the United Nations on Wednesday to care for displaced Syrians inside their country instead of letting them flood into Turkey, which already hosts more than 80,000 refugees.

CALL FOR U.N. ACTION

Ankara, fearing a mass influx such as the flight of half a million Iraqi Kurds into Turkey after the 1991 Gulf War, has floated the idea of a "safe zone" under foreign protection within Syria for civilians fleeing intensifying violence.

"We expect the United Nations to engage on the topic of protecting refugees inside Syria and if possible sheltering them in camps there," Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara.

NATO-member Turkey is reluctant to act alone to set up a safe haven inside Syria since protecting it from attack by Syrian forces would effectively mean military intervention.

Yet there is scant Western appetite for military action in Syria and no prospect of a U.N. Security Council mandate for it, given Russian and Chinese willingness to veto any such proposal.

Davutoglu was speaking shortly before going to New York to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria on Thursday.

The United Nations says at least 18,000 people have been killed in Syria since demonstrations first erupted against Assad's rule in March last year.

Mainly peaceful protests were met with force by Assad's security forces, and the uprising has degenerated into a civil war with sectarian overtones. The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are backed by regional Sunni powers. Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has Iranian support.

"We are engaged in a regional and global battle and it needs time to be resolved. But I can say.... that we are making progress and the situation, practically, is better. But it has not been resolved," the Syrian leader said.

Assad, who has vowed to defeat insurgents he describes as Islamist terrorists, praised the army and security forces who he said "are doing a heroic job in every sense".

"I tell the Syrian people that the fate of Syria is in their hands."

(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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