By EDITH M. LEDERER and DIAA HADID
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Syria’s foreign minister brought his regime’s case before the world Monday, accusing the U.S. and its allies of promoting “terrorism” and blaming everyone from neighbors and extremists to the media for escalating the war — except the Syrian government.
Addressing ministers and diplomats from the United Nation’s 193 member states as fighting spread in the historic Old City of Aleppo, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem lashed out at calls in Washington and in Arab and European capitals for Assad to step down as interference in Syria’s domestic affairs.
Al-Moallem blamed international organizations for prolonging the crisis and denounced countries such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for supporting the opposition’s “terrorism.”
“This terrorism which is externally supported is accompanied by unprecedented media provocation based on igniting religious extremism sponsored by well-known states in the region,” he told the U.N. General Assembly.
Members of the opposition said it was common knowledge that these neighboring Arab countries were supporting and financing the rebels, but said the Assad government had brought it upon itself after cracking down on protests that began peacefully 18 months ago.
“It is the regime’s mindless, brutal and criminal, military crackdown that pushed the Syrian people to ask for help from the international community, from NATO and from the devil himself if necessary to protect them,” Haitham Manna, a Paris-based veteran Syrian dissident who heads the external branch of the National Coordination Body opposition group, told The Associated Press.
Al-Moallem’s speech followed his meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in which the U.N. chief “raised in the strongest terms the continued killings, massive destruction, human rights abuses, and aerial and artillery attacks committed by the government,” according to a statement by his press office. “He stressed that it was the Syrian people who were being killed every day, and appealed to the Government of Syria to show compassion to its own people.”
The Syrian foreign minister in his address invited the opposition to “work together to stop the shedding of Syrian blood” and said that a Syrian-led dialogue could produce a “more pluralistic and democratic” country.
The opposition called the speech a classic case of regime “propaganda,” and dismissed his calls for dialogue as not genuine.
“While the brutal and delusional Syrian regime continues to pay lip service to diplomacy, its actions over the past 18 months have demonstrated beyond any doubt that they have no interest in meaningful reform or dialogue” Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based spokesman for the chief opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said in a statement.
Al-Moallem argued in his address that his regime is confronting a myriad of conspiracies by internal and external forces determined to end the Assad family’s 40-year rule. But al-Moallem made clear that Bashar Assad has no intention of relinquishing the presidency.
Armed groups were inciting civilians in border areas to flee to neighboring countries “to fabricate a refugee crisis,” al-Moallem said.
Up to 3,000 Syrians are leaving the country every day, said Vincent Cochetel of the U.N. refugee agency. Some 300,000 Syrians are registered, or waiting to register with the U.N. in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon and the agency expects the number to grow to 700,000 by the year’s end.
Al-Moallem called for a Syrian-led dialogue to agree on a roadmap to “a more pluralistic and democratic Syria.”
His call, similar to other overtures made by Assad’s regime, is unlikely to be heeded by the opposition.
Most opposition factions have repeatedly dismissed the government’s purported peace initiatives as propaganda intended to buy time. They say they will accept nothing less that Assad stepping down as a precondition for talks.
But on many other points, the Syrian opposition’s political factions and the rebel groups fighting on the ground are deeply divided.
Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of the new U.N.-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, said Monday that the large number of rival rebel and opposition groups is one of the main obstacles to Lakhdar Brahimi’s goal, which is to broker an end to the Syrian crisis.
A vast array of such groups inside and outside the country has been dogged by infighting and mutual accusations of treachery. The rebels include army defectors and gunmen who work under the rag-tag Free Syrian Army.
Lamani told The Associated Press in an interview that a peace deal is difficult because of the “high level of mistrust between all parties.”
Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat, waded into Syria’s complicated diplomatic landscape last month when he replaced Kofi Annan, the former U.N. chief whose peace plan for Syria failed to end the violence that activists say has so far killed more than 30,000 people.
Brahimi, who visited Damascus last month, will pay a second visit to Syria soon and will tour the country, Lamani said. Asked whether he still sees hope of a political solution in Syria despite the bloodshed, Lamani said that’s why he’s in Damascus — “because I hope that in the end there would be some light.”
At the United Nations, al-Moallem denounced international interference in domestic affairs under the pretexts of “humanitarian intervention” or the “responsibility to protect” civilians from possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
His attack clearly was aimed at the U.S., Britain and France and their support for the revolution in Libya that ousted Moammar Gadhafi.
“Permanent members of the Security Council, who launched wars under the pretext of combating terrorism now support terrorism in my country,” he said.
The Security Council’s major powers are deeply divided over the 18-month Syria conflict. Russia and China, key backers of Assad, have vetoed three resolutions by the U.S., Britain and France, who back the opposition and want a political transition.
Some of the heaviest fighting Monday took place in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s cultural and commercial capital, where rebels recently launched a new offensive. Opposition groups put the death toll at between 40 and 95.
Northwest of Aleppo, government warplanes bombed the town of Salqin, some four miles (six kilometers) from the border with Turkey in Idlib province, which has seen intense clashes between government troops and rebels in recent months. Activist groups said the death toll there was between 21 and 30.
The state-run news agency SANA said dozens of “terrorists” were killed in Salqin, including some non-Syrian foreign fighters.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut and Ron DePasquale at the United Nations contributed to this report.