REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- In his first national address since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday blamed a nearly 10-month uprising in his nation on unspecified "foreign conspiracies" and vowed to strike "with an iron fist" against opponents he labeled terrorists.
"The international regional parties which wish to destabilize Syria can no longer explain or hide the facts," Assad said. "What has been decided in dark rooms is now revealed before the eyes of the people."
It was a familiar refrain from a leader who critics charge has refused to acknowledge the depth of public anger against four decades of Assad family rule.
Since the start of major anti-government protests in March, the regime has responded with a combination of military force and offers of incremental reform that have failed to win over opposition activists, who now say they will be satisfied with nothing short of Assad's removal from power.
In a nearly two-hour speech, punctuated by applause from an audience at the University of Damascus, Assad insisted that he retained the support of his people and said there was no revolution in Syria.
But he held out the possibility of a more inclusive government, saying constitutional changes proposed by a hand-picked committee could be put to a national referendum as soon as March and would be followed by elections.
At the same time, he said, security must be the top priority. "There can be no let-up for terrorism -- it must be hit with an iron fist," he said.
Assad lashed out at the Arab League, which has suspended Syria and imposed sweeping sanctions in a bid to pressure the government into implementing a regional peace initiative calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
He questioned the democratic credentials of a body that includes nations still ruled by absolute monarchies.
"Their situation is like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to quit cigarettes as he puts one in his mouth," he said.
The league's sanctions were a humiliating blow for Syria, which was a founding member of the 22-member regional bloc and considers itself the "beating heart" of Arab nationalism.
"Without Syria, the Arab League is no longer an Arab organization," Assad said.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Syrians at a snack bar in Damascus, the capital, watch a televised broadcast of Syrian President Bashar Assad as he delivers a speech on Tuesday. Credit: Bassem Tellawi / Associated Press