Syrian President Bashar Assad warned of an earthquake if international forces intervene in his country where anti-government protesters are calling for protection amid a crackdown that has killed thousands.
In an interview with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Assad said calls by the protest movement for a Libya-style no-fly zone over his country — or any other form of intervention — will cause chaos.
“Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” he said. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”
Assad’s regime has long made this argument to maintain its grip on power. But the U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.
And unlike the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Assad enjoys a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure. A conflict in Syria risks touching off a wider Middle East conflict with arch foes Israel and Iran in the mix. Syria wouldn’t have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey. Syria is the closest Arab ally of Iran and has ties to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and other radical groups including the militant Palestinian Hamas.
Assad’s government is scheduled to meet Arab League officials Sunday to discuss the possibility of a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition. Previous attempts at dialogue and reform have yielded few results.
Meanwhile, Assad’s security forces launched a brutal offensive against the city of Homs, the center of protest in the past few months. Residents say shelling on houses and live bullets on protesters have killed dozens in the past two days alone. The United Nations says some 3,000 people have died since the protests began in March. Syrian activists say the number is much higher.
The U.N. Security Council failed to pass strict sanctions against Syria earlier this month; Russia and China vetoed the measure. The measure would have been the first legally binding resolution against Syria since Assad’s forces began attacking civilian protesters.
In the interview, Assad acknowledged his security forces did make some mistakes in the early days of the uprising. Now, he says, his security forces only target terrorists.
In case of international intervention, Assad and his main Mideast backer, Iran, could launch retaliatory attacks on Israel or more likely unleash Hezbollah fighters or Palestinian militant allies to do the job. To the north, Turkey has opened its doors to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels, which also could bring Syrian reprisals.
Assad alluded to those concerns at home and abroad, saying “any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”
The uprising against the Syrian regime began during a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
NPR’s Kelly McEvers in Dubai contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press