Assad says Syria was aware of, allowed defections
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", though more time was needed to win the conflict against rebels trying to overthrow him.
The bloody 17-month-old uprising against Assad, to which he responded with a brutal security force crackdown, has killed more than 18,000 people according to the United Nations.
Turkey has floated the idea of a "safe zone" to be set up for civilians under foreign protection as fighting has intensified. More than 80,000 Syrians have been given shelter in Turkey, which is now scrambling to build new refugee camps.
"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 in a recorded interview broadcast on Syria's Addounia television on Wednesday.
Assad said he was speaking from the presidential palace in the capital, in response to rumors over his whereabouts since a July bombing in Damascus that killed a number of close aides. Wearing a suit and tie and seated at a table, Assad appeared calm in the hour-long interview.
He insisted that the fight to put down rebels was going well but needed time because of foreign plots against Syria, a country on the faultlines of several Middle Eastern conflicts.
"Everyone wants this battle to be completed in days or weeks but this isn't reasonable, because we are in the middle of a regional and international struggle and it needs time to be resolved," he said.
Mainly peaceful protests were met with force by Assad's forces, and the uprising has degenerated into a civil war with sectarian overtones and regional dimensions. The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are backed by regional Sunni powers, particularly Gulf Arab states and Turkey.
Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has support from Shi'ite power Iran, a rival of Gulf Arab states and Western powers.
"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".
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan once cultivated good relations with Assad, calling him "my brother", but turned against him after the Syrian government's violent response to the uprising. Erdogan is now one of Assad's harshest critics.
The tone of criticism between the two has now become personal and Assad blamed Turkey for the violence.
"Turkey bears direct responsibility for the blood being shed in Syria," he told Addounia. "Will we go backwards because of the ignorance of some Turkish officials?"
The interview with Addounia, a pro-government television channel, appeared to be an effort to address many criticisms or claims by the opposition.
Assad acknowledged there were issues of corruption and criminal behavior such as looting by officials or members of security forces. He said every crime would be accounted for, though it would take time due to unrest in the country.
The president, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, ridiculed arguments that it was a fierce security force crackdown that turned the protests that began last March into an armed insurgency.
"In the first week we had martyrs fall from security forces and police," he said. "How did they die then? Were they killed by the shouts of protesters?"
Thousands of soldiers and officers and some high-level officials have defected in protest of the crackdown, including the former prime minister and some ambassadors.
Assad called the defections a form of "self-cleansing" for the country, accusing those who left of being cowards or bribed to defect.
"Sometimes we had information (on defections) and we would discuss it. Some would suggest we stop them. But we said no, stopping them isn't the right thing to do ... let's facilitate their exit," he said.
Rebels, fighting with assault rifles and rockets against Assad's tanks and air power, have called for a no-fly zone. Yet there is scant Western appetite for military action and no prospect of a U.N. Security Council mandate for such action, as Assad supporters Russia and China would veto any such proposal.
Assad said that while he believed there was a foreign conspiracy against Syria over its resistance to Western power in the region, the real problem came from within.
"Everything that is happening in Syria couldn't happen without certain groups, small but influential, that support foreign agendas, for political or criminal reasons," he said.
"When we no longer have groups like these ... we will be unable to affect the future we want to make for ourselves."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)