Syrian President Warns Against Western Intervention

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Syria Undercover airs Nov. 8th; check your local listings or watch it online.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned this weekend that a Libyan-style Western intervention against his regime will lead to a regional crisis.

“Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake,” he told Britain’s The Daily Telegraph. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”

Thousands of anti-government protesters took to Syrian streets on Friday, demanding a “no-fly” zone. But the country’s strategic location, coupled with fears of a sectarian civil war if the regime collapses, explain why there has been little Western support for military intervention.

“What happens in Syria is going to have reverberations immediately in the rest of the region,” New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid told FRONTLINE for our upcoming broadcast. “Syria is so embedded in the relationships in the region. And the idea that something could spiral out of control very quickly is something that is not beyond the realm of possibility.” He added, “This has been one of the most powerful assets that the Syrian government has played on for four decades now.”

The uprising in Syria is different from others in the region, President Assad told the Telegraph, arguing that his government is pursuing reform.

“Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different,” he explained. “We didn’t go down the road of stubborn government. Six days after [the protests broke out] I commenced reform. People were skeptical that the reforms were an opiate for the people, but when we started announcing the reforms, the problems started decreasing. This is when the tide started to turn. This is when people started supporting the government.”

Earlier this month, President Assad appointed a committee to draft a new constitution within the the next four months. But his critics doubt that real reform will ever come.

“Those who lived under this tyrannical regime, they understand that they all absolutely have no intention whatsoever to do any genuine or deep reforms,” Ausama Monajed, an exiled opposition dissident living in Britain, told FRONTLINE. “Any kind of reform, even cosmetic, that may compromise [their] stronghold on power they would never consider at all.  Who would give up a power that they’ve been managing or able to control for 40-something years?”

The UN estimates that at least 3,000 civilians have been killed since protests began seven months ago. Forty protesters were reported killed on Friday, the day President Assad spoke to Telegraph reporter Andrew Gilligan. In the interview, Assad admitted that his forces had made “many mistakes” earlier on in the uprising, but said that they were now only targeting “terrorists.”

Assad dismissed the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition force modeled on the Libyan opposition’s National Transitional Council, questioning whether they really represent Syrians. “I wouldn’t waste my time talking about them,” he said of the opposition group headquartered in neighboring Turkey. Assad also insisted that the anti-government protesters were being paid from across the border and were motivated by money.

Earlier last week, as tens of thousands of Syrians packed Damascus’ main square rallying in support of the Assad regime, a delegation from the Arab League visited the country in an effort to encourage dialogue between the regime and the opposition. The league has submitted a “plan of action” to end the crisis in Syria, reportedly calling for the government “to end all violence against its people, remove tanks and military vehicles from the streets of the country and release political prisoners.” It is awaiting response from the Syrian government today.

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