Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned of an “earthquake” if the West intervenes in his country.
In an interview with Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Assad said international involvement risked transforming Syria into “another Afghanistan”.
Assad’s comments on Saturday came as reports emerged of heavy fighting and mounting casualties in the city of Homs over the past few days.
He also stressed Syria was key to keeping the peace in the region.
Assad has drawn repeated condemnation from the United Nations, Arab League and Western governments for the violent manner in which he has attempted to crush a seven-month uprising against his rule.
Assad said in the interview that Western countries “are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely… but Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen”, comparing his countries to others affected by ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings.
“The history is different. The politics is different. 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? Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region,” Assad added.
‘Not the stereotypical Arab dictator’
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Andrew Gilligan, the Telegraph journalist who met Assad, said the Syrian president seemed “reasonably relaxed, and quite personable” during their interview.
Andrew Gilligan talks to Al Jazeera about Assad
“He is not the stereotypical Arab dictator,” said Gilligan. “He is not blustering, or aggressive.”
When discussing reforms, Assad “said to me he had made a number of concessions already”, Gilligan continued. “He said he announced several new laws.”
On Sunday, Assad gave an interview to a Russian TV channel, where he said he expected continued support from Moscow.
“First and foremost, we are relying on Russia as a country with which we are bound by strong ties, in the historic perspective,” he told Channel One.
“Starting from the first days of the crisis, we remained in constant contact with the Russian government. We give a detailed account to our Russian friends of the latest developments.”
Also on Sunday, China’s Middle East envoy called on the Syrian government to speed up reforms it has promised in response to popular demands, saying the situation was dangerous and the bloodshed could not continue.
Speaking in Cairo after a visit to Syria, Wu Sike told reporters that Assad’s government must take “palpable steps” to end the violence.
“There must be respect and response to the aspirations … of the Syrian people.”
He said he had met Syria’s deputy president and foreign minister and members of the opposition movement while in the Syrian capital Damascus, and insisted that China was neutral in the conflict.
“I emphasised to top officials the danger of the situation in Syria and that the situation cannot continue,” he said.
The UN estimates that more than 3,000 people, including nearly 200 children, have been killed in the unrest. Since the start of protests in March, Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on gunmen they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Syria has barred most international media, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
‘Inviting an intervention’
Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said Assad has to understand that he is “inviting an intervention”.
“There’s only so much the world can bear in terms of force against unarmed civilians,” he told Al Jazeera. “If he continues on the same path, then he will be responsible for inviting an invention.”
Safi said a no-fly zone “could be considered, but we would like to see first the Arab League, Arab countries and neighbouring countries starting to put more pressure on the government of Syria and tightening sanctions, both diplomatic and economic”.
Assad said that Syrian authorities had made “many mistakes” in the early part of the uprising, but that the situation had now improved.
“We have very few police, only the army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda,” he said. “If you sent in your army to the streets, the same thing would happen. Now, we are only fighting terrorists. That’s why the fighting is becoming much less.”
Assad said he had responded differently to calls for political change than other, now-deposed Arab leaders. “We didn’t go down the road of stubborn government,” he said.
“Six days after [the protests began], I commenced reform. People were sceptical that the reforms were an opiate for the people, but when we started announcing the reforms, the problems started decreasing. This is when the tide started to turn. This is when people started supporting the government,” Assad told the Sunday Telegraph.