A defiant President Bashar al-Assad offered no compromise to Syria’s rebels on Sunday, using his first public speech in six months to rule out any negotiation with an opposition he described as nothing more than “al-Qaeda terrorists” and “murderous armed criminals”.
Mr Assad was greeted like a conquering hero by an audience at the opera house in Damascus, named after his father. It rose and chanted his name in scenes reminiscent of those arranged in 2011 for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s appearances in the Libyan uprising.
As he finished, he stepped down into the auditorium and was surrounded and lunged at like a pop star.
However, his message was uncompromising as he called for “total national mobilisation” to defeat a rebel army he described as a “gang of killers” carrying the “al-Qaeda ideology”. He insisted the opposition were merely “puppets” of the West.
While the president did offer new talks, suggesting the if the rebels laid down their weapons he would hold a “national reconciliation conference” to discuss a new constitution that could be put to a referendum, he made clear he would only negotiate with those “who have not betrayed Syria”.
He added that the military solution to the conflict would continue even if talks took place.
“We will not give up on fighting terrorists as long as there is one terrorist inside Syria,” he said. “We will not stand down.”
The Syrian opposition immediately rejected his approach, while William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, led international condemnation of his speech, describing it as “beyond hypocritical”.
The US State Department said Mr Assad’s comments were “detached from reality”.
Mr Assad had not made a major speech since rebels seized half of Aleppo and made substantial incursions into the Damascus suburbs in a sweep in July.
That two-pronged attack followed hard on the heels of a bomb attack on the general security building in central Damascus which killed three of his closest lieutenants, including his brother-in-law, and according to some reports wounded his brother, Maher.
His reluctance to appear in public since then led to speculation that he had left the capital for Latakia, the city in the heartland of his Alawite minority, not far from a Russian naval base at Tartous.
His speech, announced in advance and made as a number of new diplomatic approaches were being discussed by Syria’s neighbours, was preceded by reports that he would propose a new peace initiative.
Instead, in a rambling delivery, he did not go beyond previous offerings of a new “vision” including negotiations with a patriotic opposition that excluded those he accused of being sponsored by outside forces.
He said any political initiative proposed from outside the country would have to respect the Syrian government’s own “vision” and proposals.
“We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other,” he said. “It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals.”
He added: “The one thing that is sure that those who we face today are those who carry the al-Qaeda ideology. There are those who seek to partition Syria and weaken it. But Syria is stronger and will remain sovereign. This is what upsets the West.”
As he spoke, the crowd rose to its feet and chanted: “”With our soul with our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Bashar”.
The speech was immediately rejected by the opposition, which reiterated its stance that there can be no negotiations until Mr Assad stands down. It also met with a contemptuous response from western leaders.
“Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making,” Mr Hague said in a tweet. “Empty promises of reform fool no one.”
The speech’s backdrop, a Syrian national flag projected on to the back of the stage that appeared to be made up of photographs of those who had been killed, caused particular anger among opposition supporters. “He is standing in front of a mosaic of our martyrs – the same ones he killed,” one posted online.
The speech appeared to be a formal response to a new round of diplomacy led by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy, who has proposed a gradual transition of power but not specified that Mr Assad should step down.
The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Moqdad, is currently holding talks in Iran, whose foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, is due to visit Cairo later in the week. Egypt has emerged as a more powerful international broker under its new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, while Cairo is also home to the new opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition.
However, neither Syrian diplomats nor Mr Assad have made reference to the immediate threat to his regime – rebels now hold suburbs of Damascus itself, within a few miles of where Mr Assad was speaking.