President Bashar al-Assad renewed a pledge of reforms on Sunday, as Syria threatened retaliation if countries recognise an opposition bloc increasingly active on the international scene.
“Syria is taking steps focused on two main fronts — political reform and the dismantling of armed groups,” who seek to destabilise the country, Assad told the visiting Cuban and Venezuelan foreign ministers.
The embattled president said “the Syrian people had welcomed the reforms but that foreign attacks intensified just as the situation in the country began to make progress.” He accused Western powers of having “little interest in reform,” seeking instead to “push Syria to pay the price for its stances against foreign schemes hatched outside the region.” “Despite everything, a process of reform is underway,” he assured them, stressing that Syria’s decisions were “sovereign and not related to foreign instructions.” The foreign ministers of Venezuela and Cuba headed a delegation of leftist Latin American countries — including Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia — that travelled to Syria to “show support.” The delegates denounced the “political and media campaign being waged against Syria,” the state news agency SANA said.
The eight-member Latin American bloc’s talks aim to “political destabilisation attempts by the United States and its allies,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said prior to the visit.
“We reject all forms of interventionism that the empire is trying to apply as it did in Libya for a violent process of regime change,” he said.
Washington has renewed its calls for Assad to step down immediately amid escalating violence against anti-regime protesters that the United Nations says has left nearly 3,000 people dead.
Turkey, meanwhile, has kept constant pressure on Damascus by hosting gatherings of Syrian dissidents and repeatedly calling on Assad’s regime to introduce reforms.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned that Damascus will retaliate against any state which recognises the Syrian National Council (SNC), formed in Istanbul in late August and uniting the key groups opposed to Assad’s rule.
“We will take significant measures against any country that recognises this illegitimate council,” Muallem told a news conference, as the newly formed opposition group lobbied for support in Cairo where the Arab League is based.
The SNC groups the Local Coordination Committees (LLC), an activist network spurring protests in Syria, the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as Kurdish and Assyrian groups.
One of its members, Kurdish leader Meshaal Tamo, was assassinated on Friday, sparking the condemnation of the United States, France, the European Union and Turkey. Damascus blamed the assassination on a “terrorist” group.
“There are groups carrying out acts of violence in Syria and who have killed a great number of martyrs. The West speaks of a peaceful revolution and does not admit these groups exist but arms them anyhow,” Muallem said.
He also issued a thinly veiled warning to Turkey which condemned the assassination as a “loathsome” act. “Syria will not stay with its arms crossed. If Turkey throws us a flower, we will send them one back,” he said.
Syrian security forces killed at least two people on Saturday when they opened fire on a crowd of more than 50,000 mourners who took part in Tamo’s funeral procession, which turned into an anti-regime rally, activists said.
Syria then closed one of its border gates with Turkey and barred Turkish nationals from entering following the bloodshed in Qamishli, northern Syria, where Tamo’s funeral was held, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency said.
The United States has charged that Assad’s regime was escalating its tactics against the opposition with bold attacks on its leaders, while the LCC inside Syria has accused it of trying to “physically eliminate” top dissidents.
The SNC is courting foreign recognition and plans to hold a meeting to elect its leadership, a member of the exile group’s delegation to Cairo, told Egypt’s official MENA news agency.
Moscow said on Saturday it will receive Syrian opposition politicians on Tuesday for unofficial talks and that it also expects to host a visit from SNC delegates later in the month.
Meanwhile, Syria’s embassies in Europe have become a focal point of angry protests, with a group of 30 demonstrators storming the Syrian embassy in Berlin on Saturday night.