BERLIN (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he is not afraid of meeting the same fate as the deposed and disgraced leaders of Libya and Egypt, saying he has nothing in common with them.
In one of his rare interviews with Western media since the deadly uprising in Syria erupted last year, Assad brushed off a question about whether he feared for his family, including his wife and three children.
"It's a completely different situation," he told German broadcaster ARD. "What's happening in Egypt is different from what is happening in Syria ... You cannot compare," he said.
He also rejected any comparisons with Libya, where rebels helped by NATO air strikes toppled the regime. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed while fleeing advancing opposition fighters.
"Describing what happened to al Gadhafi, this is savage, this is crime," he said in the interview which was conducted in English.
The 16 months of upheaval in Syria, spurred by the Arab Spring's pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, have left well over 14,000 people dead, according to activists. They accuse the autocratic ruler of crushing legitimate protests seeking reforms by waging a war against his own people.
But in the interview, the 46-year-old Assad who has ruled Syria since taking over from his father in 2000, accused the U.S. of fueling the uprising, saying that Washington ultimately bears responsibility for the deaths of innocent civilians in the Middle Eastern nation.
The U.S. is partnering with those "terrorists ... with weapons, money or public and political support at the United Nations," Assad said. "They offer the umbrella and political support to those gangs to ... destabilize Syria."
Assad rejected responsibility of his security forces for the violence, claiming that "supporters of the government, the victims from the security and the army" far outnumber those among civilians.
Instead, he told ARD that an opposition made up of terrorists, gangs, "a mixture, an amalgam of Al Qaida (and) other extremists" is responsible for the violence.
When asked directly about the killing of more than 100 civilians in the Syrian village of Houla in May, he blamed it on gangs who "came in hundreds from outside the city."
The massacre caused an international outcry, and U.N. investigators have since concluded that Syrian government troops could be behind the killings.
Assad said a "majority of the people ask for reforms, political reforms (but) not freedom." He stressed that he still had the overall support of Syria's people, firmly ruling out stepping down.
"The president shouldn't run away from challenge and we have a national challenge now in Syria," he said.
While he said he was ready for political dialogue with the opposition, Assad left no doubt that he would fight those his government perceives as terrorists.
"But as long as you have terrorism and as long as the dialogue didn't work, you have to fight the terrorism. You cannot keep just making dialogue while they are killing your people and your army," he said.
The main obstacles to a peaceful solution to the conflict are the nations supporting the opposition, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar who send armaments, Turkey which helps with logistics and smuggling across the border and, finally, U.S. political support, he said.
The interview, the third Assad has given to a Western news organization since last year, was conducted Thursday in a government guest house in Damascus and recorded by Syria's state television, according to ARD.
The interview for ARD's foreign policy program Weltspiegel was conducted by Juergen Todenhoefer, a former media executive and lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party. He has published a number of books and essays on Islam, the war against terror in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, and on Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Todenhoefer asked Assad how Syria would react to a military intervention, the Syrian leader vowed to stand up to the attackers.
"Whether you're prepared or not, you've got to defend your country, but you have to be prepared," he said.
In a show of force, Syria began large-scale military exercises Sunday to simulate defending the country against outside "aggression."
Some in Syria's fractured opposition have appealed to the West for foreign forces to step in to stop the bloodshed, but Western nations are reluctant to intervene in Syria in part because unlike the military intervention that helped bring down Gadhafi in Libya, the Syrian conflict has the potential to quickly escalate.
Damascus has a web of allegiances to powerful forces including Shiite powerhouse Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah and there are concerns that a military campaign could pull them into a wider conflagration.
Damascus' staunchest ally, Iran, meanwhile, warned Sunday of a "catastrophe" in the region if no political solution to the Syrian conflict is found.
And Syria's other main partner, Russia, has over the past months prevented the U.N. Security Council from adopting tougher measures.
U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, who is the architect of an international plan to end the crisis, acknowledged in an interview published Saturday that the international community's efforts to find a political solution to the escalating violence in Syria have failed. Annan arrived in the Syrian capital Sunday for talks with Assad, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jbaetz