As the Syrian regime comes under blistering international condemnation for its crackdown on dissent, Bashar Assad chose to speak in an interview with state-run television on Sunday, few days after the United States and its European allies called for him to step down, and hours after a diplomat said Assad's regime was "scrubbing blood off the streets" ahead of a U.N. visit.
"I am not worried about the security situation right now, we can say the security situation is better," Assad said in his fourth public appearance since the revolt against his family's 40-year rule erupted in mid-March. "It may seem dangerous, but in fact we are able to deal with it," he said.
In a now-familiar refrain, Assad promised imminent reforms — including parliamentary elections by February — but insisted the unrest was being driven by a foreign conspiracy, not true reform seekers.
Assad said President Barack Obama's calls for him to give up power had "no value."
The opposition rejected Assad's remarks, saying they have lost confidence in his promises of reform while his forces open fire on peaceful protesters.
Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed in the government's crackdown on protests. The regime has unleashed tanks, snipers and pro-regime gunmen in an attempt to stamp out the uprising.
Assad warned against Libya-style military intervention, saying "any military action against Syria will bring repercussions that (the West) cannot tolerate." There have been no serious international plans to launch such an operation, in part because the opposition has said it does not want Western countries to interfere.
The 40-minute interview took place with two reporters seated around a table — a more casual atmosphere than previous appearances. It was the first time Assad agreed to take any questions about the events of the past five months, although the state-owned network is a mouthpiece for the regime. The reporters did not ask any direct questions about the protest movement or the military operations that have taken place in Syrian cities.
The opposition said the interview was meaningless. Suheir Atassi, a prominent Syria pro-democracy activist who lives in hiding, posted on Twitter that Assad had given an "empty media appearance."
Syria has come under blistering international condemnation. Most recently, the United States and its European allies on Thursday demanded he step down. Late Saturday, former ally Turkey called Syria's situation "unsustainable."
Assad declared to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday that military and security operations have stopped in Syria. Despite that pledge, the government's offensive has continued, although on a smaller scale.
Activists said security forces stormed the Khaldieh district in Homs Sunday, carrying out a security raid and random arrests. They said the military also stormed districts in the northern Idlib province.
Activists said security forces on Saturday shot two people dead in the town of Rastan, near the provincial capital of Homs. One of those killed was Mahmoud Ayoub, a prominent activist who organized protests.
Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel's case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.
A destabilized Syria, consequently, could send unsettling ripples through the region.
Syria granted a U.N. team permission to visit some of the centers of the protests and crackdown to assess humanitarian needs, but activists and a Western diplomat accused the regime of trying to scrub away signs of the crackdown.
The team is scheduled to visit the coastal town of Latakia on Monday. Activists said authorities were cleaning up the city's al-Ramel neighbourhood after a four-day military operation earlier this week.
The Western diplomat confirmed that the area, which is home to thousands of Palestinian refugees, was being subjected to "a serious cleanup operation" in advance of the arrival of the mission led by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"In Latakia they are literally sweeping glass and stones up and scrubbing blood off the streets," he said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The U.N. team also is to visit the central cities of Homs and Hama, the southern city of Daraa and areas in Idlib province north of the country. U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the U.N. Security Council last week that any assessment must be conducted independently, with no restrictions.