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Defiant, Syria's Assad Says He'll Respond To Threats With An 'Iron Hand'

Speaking in public for the first time since June, embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad said he would not leave power. According to Reuters, Assad blamed "foreign planning" for the uprising that has engulfed his country. Calling the protesters terrorists, he vowed to respond to threats with an "iron hand."

The AP adds:

"'Our priority now is to regain security which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,' Assad said in the speech at Damascus University, where he stood at a podium flanked by Syrian flags. 'We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country.'

"Assad also lashed out at the Arab League, saying the Cairo-based bloc failed to protect Arab interests. The League has suspended Syria and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Assad agreed to on Dec. 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.

"'The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests,' Assad said. 'We shouldn't be surprised it's failed today.'

As we've reported, Assad is under intense international pressure to call a ceasefire. But he's resisted and his security forces have continued cracking down on protesters. The United Nations has estimated that more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed during the uprising.

Reuters adds that Assad also announced some reforms including the prospect of a referendum in March to vote on a new constitution. But activists and commentators weren't convinced.

Sultan Al Qassemi, a well-known commentator from the United Arab Emirates, tweeted his disgust: "Bashar (who caused the death of over 5,000 civilians) hasn't offered Syrians anything, he is arrogant even by Arab dictators standards."

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