BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad called on Syrians to defend their country against religious extremists seeking to destroy the nation, dismissing any prospect of dialogue with the "murderous criminals" he says are behind the uprising even as he outlined his vision for a peaceful settlement to the civil war.
In a one-hour speech to the nation in which he appeared confident and relaxed, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria."
He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow him first.
Syria's opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president's departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.
"It is an excellent initiative that is only missing one crucial thing: His resignation," said Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident and member of the opposition's Syrian National Coalition umbrella group.
"All what he is proposing will happen automatically, but only after he steps down," Lawani told The Associated Press by telephone from Sweden.
On top of that, Assad's new initiative is reminiscent of symbolic changes and concessions that his government made earlier in the uprising, which were rejected at the time as too little too late.
Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Assad told the hall packed with supporters — who frequently broke out in cheers and applause — that "we are in a state of war."
"We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other," he said. "It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals."
Assad has rarely spoken since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011, and Sunday's speech was his first since June. His last public comments came in an interview in November to Russian TV in which he vowed to die in Syria.
On Sunday, he seemed equally confident in his troops' ability to crush the rebels fighting his rule, even as they edge in closer than ever to his seat of power, Damascus.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad's speech was "beyond hypocritical." In a message posted on his official Twitter feed, Hague said "empty promises of reform fool no one."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's office said in a statement that the bloc will "look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition."
Wearing a suit and tie, Assad spoke before a collage of pictures of what appeared to be Syrians who have been killed since March 2011. At the end of his speech and as he was leaving the hall, he was mobbed by a group of loyalists shouting: "With our blood and souls we redeem you, Bashar!"
The president waved and blew kisses to the crowd on his way out.
Assad acknowledged the enormous impact of the conflict, which the United Nations recently estimated had killed more than 60,000 people.
"We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy in any corner of the country in the absence of security and stability," he said. "I look at the eyes of Syria's children and I don't see any happiness."
The Internet was cut in many parts of Damascus ahead of the address, apparently for security reasons.
As in previous speeches, Assad said his forces were fighting groups of "murderous criminals" and jihadi elements and denied that there was an uprising against his family's decades-long rule.
He stressed the presence of religious extremists and jihadi elements among those fighting in Syria, calling them "terrorists who carry the ideology of al-Qaeda" and "servants who know nothing but the language of slaughter."
He said Syria will not take dictates from anyone — a reference to outside powers — and urged his countrymen to unite to save the nation.
Outlining his peace initiative, he said: "The first part of a political solution would require regional powers to stop funding and arming (the rebels), an end to terrorism and controlling the borders."
He said this would then be followed by dialogue and a national reconciliation conference and the formation of a wide representative government which would then oversee new elections, a new constitution and general amnesty.
However, Assad made clear his offer to hold a dialogue is not open to those whom he considers extremists or carrying out a foreign agenda, essentially eliminating anyone that has taken up arms against the regime.
"We never rejected a political solution ... but with whom should we talk? With those who have an extremist ideology, who only understand the language of terrorism?" he said. "Or should we with negotiate puppets whom the West brought?"
"We negotiate with the master not with the slave," he said.
As in previous speeches and interviews, he clung to the view that the crisis in Syria was a foreign-backed agenda and said it was not an uprising against his rule.
"Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals," he said.