President Bashar Al Assad said his future could only be decided at the ballot box and denied Syria was in a state of civil war, despite fresh attacks and heavy fighting on Friday near the Turkish border.
In an interview with Russian television, Assad said that whether the president can “stay or leave” is a “popular issue” and “the only way (it) can be done (is) through the ballot boxes.”
Assad warned that Syria was facing a protracted conflict because foreign powers were backing rebels fighting his regime, but insisted there was no civil war.
He admitted divisions existed in the country, but said “division does not mean civil war,” and denied his forces had committed war crimes.
State-backed Russia Today (RT) had on Thursday released excerpts of the interview in which Assad vowed to “live in Syria and die in Syria” and warned that foreign intervention in his country would have global consequences.
Assad also lashed out at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accusing him of behaving like an Ottoman sultan and thinking he is a “caliph,” in an interview with Russian television broadcast on Friday.
“He (Erdogan) personally thinks that he is the new sultan of the Ottoman (empire) and he can control the region as it was during the Ottoman empire, under a new umbrella,” Assad told state-run Russia Today television.
“In his heart he thinks he is a caliph,” said Assad, referring to the title used by leaders of the Islamic world from the early Arab Islamic dynasties up to the Ottoman empire.
Assad said that the mentality of Erdogan — who leads the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) — was to blame for collapse of relations between the Damascus regime and Ankara.
Erdogan has shifted his policy on Syria from “zero problems to zero friends,” said Assad, who noted that he last spoke with Erdogan in May 2011.
Assad accused Erdogan of wanting the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the Middle East region so that “he (Erdogan) can guarantee his political future.”
Assad’s comments came as clashes continued and activists staged traditional Friday protests against his regime.
Some of the heaviest fighting saw at least 20 Syrian soldiers killed over the Ras Al Ain border post, one of only two crossings on the Turkish border still in regime hands, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Fighting over the post left at least 16 Syrian soldiers and 10 rebels dead on Thursday, the Observatory said, and forced thousands to flee.
A car bomb outside a mayor’s office in the town of Muadamiya Al Sham south of Damascus killed four civilians on Friday, the Observatory said, while at least 12 civilians were killed in shelling in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
A media correspondent in Damascus said warplanes flew over the city and heavy explosions were heard in the early morning and late afternoon.
On Thursday, 142 people were killed nationwide, including 56 civilians, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground.
Thousands of protesters rallied on Friday, with many mocking Assad’s “live and die” remarks.
“Bashar, you will die in Syria, but you won’t be buried in the ground, you will be thrown in the dustbin of history!” read one sign held by protesters in the central city of Hama.
On the ground, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it was reorganising and relocating its leadership to rebel-held territory in a bid to win vital international support.
General Mustafa Sheikh, who heads the FSA military council, told reporters in northern Syria that the group had started to restructure itself into five divisions — north, south, east and west, and the coast — and would elect new leaders.
“We are getting closer and closer to becoming organised, so that we can get to a stage that is accepted by the international community,” he said.
Sheikh said the FSA leadership, based largely in neighbouring Turkey, is countering criticism from its rank and file by relocating around 200 officers — including himself — back to “liberated” parts of Syria.