US condemns Assad

WASHINGTON - The US has condemned a speech by Syria's President Assad that denounced his opponents as "puppets of the West".

The state department said a peace plan outlined by Mr Assad was "detached from reality", calling it "another attempt by the regime to cling to power".

The EU reacted by restating that the Syrian president had "to step aside and allow for a political transition".

The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which began in March 2011.

Sunday's televised speech was Bashar al-Assad's first public address since June.

He denounced opponents as "enemies of God and puppets of the West" and said Syria wanted to negotiate with the "master not the servants".

He said Syria had not rejected diplomatic moves but insisted it would not negotiate with people with "terrorist" ideas.

Assad set out a plan involving a national dialogue conference and a referendum on a national charter.

In Washington, state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the speech was "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people's goal of a political transition".

She added that the initiative "is detached from reality" and undermines efforts by international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

She repeated calls for President Assad to leave office - as did EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

"We maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition," Baroness Ashton's office said in a statement.

The most recent performance advertised on the Damascus Opera House website is for an evening of choral music conducted by the Russian Victor Babenko last May.

President Bashar al-Assad clearly felt capable of commanding the same stage. More than 1,000 supporters were allowed into the main hall to witness his political recital.

Mr Assad repeated the two principal lines of argument that he has employed since the start of the conflict in March 2011 - the opposition is led by foreign terrorists and must be defeated; his own administration is willing to carry out reforms.

The most lasting image from Mr Assad's appearance may come from the moments after his speech. Dozens of supporters surged towards the president - almost prefiguring the frenzy that might happen if the opposition got to him. The president waved, and struggled to leave the stage. For Syria's opposition, that is the entire problem.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called his remarks "repetitions of what he's said all along", while UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said "the empty promises of reform fool no-one".

In his speech Mr Assad set out a series of steps he said would provide a solution to the crisis:

    Outside powers to stop arming what he called "terrorist groups"
    The army would then halt military operations, while reserving the right to defend state interests
    The government would then contact what he termed "Syrian individuals and political parties" to engage in a conference of national dialogue
    The conference would try to establish a national charter that would be put to a referendum, leading to parliamentary elections and a new government

Iran welcomed the Syrian leader's proposals. A deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was quoted by state radio as saying that Syria's "genuine opposition" believed the crisis could be resolved through political measures rather than violence.

But the proposals were rejected by the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) - which has been recognised by the EU and the US.

Spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters news agency his group would accept nothing less than the departure of Mr Assad and his government.

In recent months opposition forces have gained control of swathes of territory in northern Syria.

But rebel efforts to gain ground in and around major cities including Damascus have met with stiff resistance and increasingly destructive air strikes.

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