BEIRUT/AMMAN Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday condemned the "abominable" massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.
In a speech to parliament Assad repeated many of his earlier pledges to maintain a crackdown on opponents he describes as terrorists implementing a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with those opposition figures who have avoided armed conflict or outside backing.
He made his comments a day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the specter of all-out civil war was growing daily in Syria and the world needed to see actions, not words, from Assad.
In his hour-long address, Assad offered no specific response to Annan's plea for bold steps to end the conflict.
Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests against Assad, which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.
"This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements," Assad said, looking relaxed as he spoke to parliamentarians. "If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near."
Last month's massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria's relentless bloodshed - undimmed by Annan's April 12 ceasefire deal - could engulf the Middle East.
Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah.
Western powers have accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25 Houla killing, a charge Damascus has denied.
"What happened in Houla...and what we described as ugly and abominable massacres, or true monstrosities - even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen," Assad said.
SYRIA FACES "REAL WAR"
He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month's election for parliament, whose new members Assad was addressing.
"We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political program. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism," Assad said.
"The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside," Assad said.
Authorities will maintain a crackdown against the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents, he added.
"We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return. I urge those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge."
Abdelbaset Sida of the opposition Syrian National Council dismissed the speech as more rhetoric.
"Assad wants to remain the head of a repressive system at all costs. He does not want to admit that his time his over and that the Syrian people do not want him," he told Reuters.
Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must make "bold and visible" steps immediately to change his military stance and honor his commitment to cease all violence.
Annan criticized Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.
The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in a crackdown on protests against Assad. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Angus MacSwan)