By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad predicted a global catastrophe should the West invade his country, and representatives of Syria’s notoriously divided opposition struggled Thursday to form a united government-in-exile against Assad’s beleaguered rule.
The International Red Cross, meanwhile, warned that it could no longer “cope” with the fast-expanding humanitarian crisis in Syria, where a raging civil conflict has left millions in need of shelter, medical aid, food and other necessities.
In an interview with the Russian RT television channel, Assad sketched an apocalyptic scenario should the West mount an invasion of Syria, where foreign-backed armed rebels are fighting to depose him.
“I think the price of this invasion, if it happens, is … too big,” Assad, speaking in English, told the Russian station in one of his infrequent recent interviews. “More than the whole world can afford. … We are the last stronghold of secularity and stability in the region. And coexistence, let’s say. It will have a domino effect … from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”
The Syrian president, whose family has ruled the country for 40 years, has frequently depicted his government as stoutly manning the ramparts of stability in a volatile region beset by religious, ethnic and political divides. He has previously warned that his government would not fall without igniting a regional conflagration.
The Syrian president said he believed an invasion of his country was unlikely, but he stressed that in the event of such an attack “nobody can tell what’s next.”
Most independent experts agree that the United States and other foreign powers supporting the Syrian opposition are extremely unlikely to deploy troops to Syria. The Syrian opposition itself has rejected the notion of a foreign invasion and instead has called on Washington and other nations to provide the rebels with advanced weaponry and air support.
The Obama administration and its allies have been hesitant to hand over weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to a decentralized rebel force that lacks a central command and includes Islamic militants and al-Qaida sympathizers.
In the interview, Assad also repeated previous assertions that he has no intention of leaving Syria despite demands from Washington and elsewhere that he relinquish power.
“I am Syrian. I’m made in Syria,” Assad said in an interview, excerpts of which appeared Thursday on RT’s website. “I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television that Assad’s exit from Syria “could be arranged.” The implication was that, in the name of what Cameron called a “safe transition,” Assad could be allowed to flee to another country where he could escape prosecution for war crimes or other possible offenses.
But the Syrian president shrugged off talk of his departure even as the almost 20-month rebellion grinds on with no sign that the killing will cease or that the diplomatic impasse about Syria will break. Opposition groups say more than 30,000 people have died.
“I am not a puppet,” Assad said, according to RT’s partial transcript. “I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country.”
Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, various disparate elements of the Syrian opposition were struggling to form a unified coalition that could serve as a kind of government-in-exile and facilitate aid from allies in the West and the Arab world. New disagreements have reportedly emerged in five days of talks in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Opponents of Assad have bickered for months about fundamental issues such as whether armed insurrection was the correct path, the role of religion in a new Syria and future representation of the nation’s many minorities, including Christians, Kurds and Alawites — the sect that includes Assad and his top security chiefs. Bringing the highly diverse opposition coalition under a single umbrella group has proved difficult, though participants in the meeting in Doha expressed confidence that a unified opposition body will emerge this week.
“I’m sure we shall find the best solution to create a leadership that can face its challenges and do the best for the Syrians in these difficult times,” a leading dissident, Riad Seif, told reporters in Doha, where anti-Assad delegates from various factions have been thrashing out their differences behind closed doors. “We’d like to come to a real agreement in which everybody is satisfied and then to work later as one team to do all our best for the Syrian revolution, to get rid of this terrible regime.”
Late last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned the fractious opposition that it was time to put their house in order.
“There needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians,” Clinton said. “It is not a secret that many inside Syria are worried about what comes next. They have no love lost for the Assad regime, but they worry, rightly so, about the future.”
A Syrian government spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, condemned the opposition session in Qatar as “the spearhead in shedding the blood of the Syrian people,” in a statement issued by the official Syrian news service.
Inside Syria, the violence continues unabated. Opposition activists have reported as many as 150 deaths a day, mostly attributed to government shelling and airstrikes. But casualties have also resulted from opposition attacks, including car bombs and mortar strikes.
In Geneva, Peter Maurer, president of International Committee of the Red Cross, warned that the humanitarian scenario was deteriorating as winter approached. Aid agencies estimate that as many as 1.5 million Syrians have been made homeless within the country, and another 500,000 have fled Syria.
“The humanitarian situation is getting worse despite the scope of the operation increasing,” Maurer told reporters. “We can’t cope with the worsening of the situation.”