BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad warned in comments broadcast Friday that the fall of his regime or the breakup of his nation will cause a “domino effect” that will fuel Middle East instability for years, in his sharpest warning yet about the potential fallout of his country’s civil war on neighboring states.
In Moscow, Russia’s president said the Syrian conflict has become “a massacre” that must be stopped through peace talks, and repeated the Kremlin’s firm rejection of calls for Assad’s ouster.
The Syrian regime is under growing pressure from an increasingly effective rebel movement that has managed to pry much of northern Syria away from the government and has made significant headway recently in the south in capturing territory and military bases. The rebel advances appear to have given them momentum and put the government on the defensive in the 2-year-old conflict that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 70,000 people.
In an interview with the Turkish TV station Ulusal Kanal broadcast Friday, Assad accused his neighbors of stoking the revolt against his rule, saying “we are surrounded by countries that help terrorists and allow them to enter Syria.” But he warned that those same countries may eventually pay a price down the road.
“Everybody knows that if the disturbances in Syria reach the point of country’s breakup, or terrorist forces control Syria, or if the two cases happen, then this will immediately spill over into neighboring countries first, and later there will be a domino effect that will reach countries across the Middle East,” he said.
He also lashed out at Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was a close ally of Assad before the crisis began but then turned into one of his harshest critics.
“When the prime minister (Erdogan), or the government or officials get involved in shedding Syrian people’s blood there is no place for bridges between me and them or the Syrian people that don’t respect them,” Assad said.
Turkey has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition, and has provided it with logistical support and shelter.
The president also used the interview to quash rumors that he had been killed by one of his guards in the capital Damascus.
Asked by a journalist whether he is still alive, Assad told Ulusal Kanal: “I am present in front of you and not in a shelter. These are mere rumors.”
He said he is living as usual in Syria and is not hiding in underground shelters.
The Syrian revolt started with largely peaceful protests in March 2011 but has developed into a civil war with increasingly sectarian overtones. Sunni Muslims dominate rebel ranks, while the Assad regime is composed mostly of Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group to which the president and his family belong.
Russia, a close Assad ally, has shielded Damascus from U.N. sanctions and largely stood by the regime, although it has also signaled that it is not tied to his remaining in power. At the same time, it has refused to back calls for Assad to step down, and has instead pushed for talks with the opposition.
Speaking to the German ARD television in remarks released by the Kremlin on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated Moscow’s firm rejection of calls for Assad’s ouster.
“What is going on is a massacre, this is a disaster, a catastrophe,” Putin said. “It has to be stopped.”
He added, however, that “when they say that Assad is fighting against his own people, we need to remember that this is the armed part of the opposition.”
Putin said that negotiations between the government and the opposition are necessary to provide guarantees to all parties and prevent the country from sliding into chaos.
“We do not think that Assad should leave today, as our partners suggest. In this case, tomorrow we will have to decide what to do and where to go,” Putin said
He said that Russia doesn’t want to see Syria plunge into a turmoil, which befell Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
“Therefore, we believe that it is necessary to bring everyone to the negotiation table so that all warring parties could reach an agreement on how their interests will be protected and in which way they will participate in the future governance of the country,” he said. “And then they will work together on the implementation of this plan with due guarantees of the international community.”
He said that French President Francois Hollande offered “some interesting ideas that can be implemented” on his February’s visit to Moscow, but added that it will require some diplomatic work.
“We are ready to support these ideas,” Putin said without elaboration. “We need to try and put them into practice.”
Inside Syria, a barrage of rockets slammed into a contested district on the northeastern edge of Damascus, killing at least five people and trapping others under the rubble, while rebel fighters overran an army checkpoint near the southern border with Jordan, activists said Friday.
The rocket attack on the capital’s Barzeh neighborhood, where rebels aiming to topple Assad are known to operate, follows days of heavy fighting between the rebels and the military in the area.
Rebels have established footholds in districts on the edge of Damascus and in suburbs in the northeast and south, and from there they lob mortars into the heavily defended city. Despite their efforts, they have been unable to break the Assad regime’s tight hold on the capital.
Later Friday, rebels overran an army checkpoint near the border with Jordan after fighting with troops, the Observatory said.
The rebel gains have coincided with what Western and Arab officials say are U.S.-backed training of opposition fighters in Jordan and an influx of foreign-funded weapons into the south. The opposition advances could be leading up to control of the region along the Jordanian border. That would be a major victory that could offer rebels a staging ground to try to attack the capital Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report