BEIRUT — In his first public address in months, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Tuesday lashed out at the Arab League for isolating Syria, taunted rebels as traitors and vowed to subdue what he cast as a foreign-backed plot against his country.
“We will defeat this conspiracy,” Mr. Assad declared in a nearly two-hour speech.
The address reiterated what has become a familiar refrain as Mr. Assad faces his greatest challenge in more than 11 years of authoritarian rule — a pledge to crush what he has cast as terrorism and sabotage, complemented by somewhat vague promises of reform. The tenor of his remarks, and seeming show of confidence, underscored the irreconcilable nature of Syria’s crisis, pitting a protest movement that demands Mr. Assad leave against a government that rarely acknowledges their grievances.
Mr. Assad denied his government had ordered security forces to open fire on anyone, despite a death toll that the United Nations says has spiraled beyond 5,000 since mid-March in a relentless crackdown. He promised a referendum on a new Constitution in March, a step that seemed to pale before the enormity of the crisis — the bloodiest of the uprisings that began to sweep the Arab world more than a year ago.
“When I rule, I rule because that it is the people’s will and when I leave office, I leave because it is the people’s will,” Mr. Assad said.
Syria’s uprising has seemingly entered a more complicated, even confusing stage, as protests in some locales appear revived in past weeks and armed elements of the opposition claim to have grown emboldened by the appearance of more defectors.
Attacks in the capital Damascus have killed scores over the past month. The government has blamed those bombings on foreign-backed terrorists; the opposition claims the government has cynically carried them out on its own to sully the protesters’ image.
In his speech, broadcast on Syrian television, Mr. Assad drew parallels between those attacks and an Islamist revolt in the late 1970s and early 1980s that threatened the hold on power of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, who ruled the country for three decades.
“There can be no let-up for terrorism — it must be hit with an iron fist,” he said. “The battle with terrorism is a battle for everyone, a national battle, not only the government’s battle.” Occasionally interrupted by applause, he added “victory is near.”