DAMASCUS: Syria's president Bashar al-Assad in a rare speech on Sunday called for a national dialogue to end the 21-month conflict, but stressed he would not talk to those who have taken up arms against his regime.
Describing the Western-backed opposition as "slaves" of foreign powers and admitting that Syria was in the throes of a "real war", the president urged opponents at home to join his regime in ending the bloody conflict.
He spelled out a transition plan, insisting however, that any decision must be purely Syrian and ratified by referendum, including a "National Charter" that would be agreed on in a national dialogue conference.
Assad said his government would soon give details of his plan, which calls on foreign countries to stop funding the armed opposition, followed by an end to military operations by the regular army and a mechanism to monitor both.
"Regional and international countries must stop funding the armed men to allow those displaced to return to their homes right after that our military operations will cease," he said.
After that the government would step up contacts to convene a national dialogue conference with regime opponents "from inside and outside" the country, who do not take orders from abroad.
"We will dialogue with the masters of their decisions not the slaves of foreign powers," Assad said to wild applause from crowds packed into the Dar al-Assad Centre for Culture and Arts in Damascus.
According to the initiative, the conference should draw up a "National Charter" that will be the reference document for the political and economic future of Syria.
"This charter will be put up for a referendum vote," Assad said.
After that new parliamentary polls would be held, followed by the creation of a new government, said Assad.
But he stressed for all this to happen "there must be agreement at the national dialogue conference."
"Just because we have not found a partner, it does not mean we are not interested in a political solution, but that we did not find a partner," he told the audience.
He said the conflict was not one between the government and the opposition but between the "nation and its enemies."
"The one thing that is sure that those who we face today are those who carry the Al-Qaeda ideology," Assad said, repeating previous assertions that "foreign terrorists" are behind the uprising in his country.
"There are those who seek to partition Syria and weaken it. But Syria is stronger and will remain sovereign and this is what upsets the West."
Assad last spoke in public on June 3 when he addressed parliament in Damascus. In November he gave an interview to Russian television in which he dismissed suggestions he would go into exile, saying said he would "live and die" in Syria.
Since then he has not commented on the conflict which has ravaged his country, killing at least 60,000 people in the 21 months since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March 2011 according to UN figures.
In his speech on Sunday, however, he came out fighting, appealing to all Syrians to join together to defend the nation.
"Everyone must defend it the attack on the entire nation every citizen who is aware and refusing to join solutions is taking the nation backwards," he said.
The president, who was frequently interrupted by chants of "With our soul with our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you O Bashar", stressed throughout his speech that the Syrian people must decide their future alone and accused foreign powers of interfering in the conflict.
"Any initiative we agree upon is based on sovereignty and a national referendum," he said, describing the vote as a "sort of guarantee" to preserve the country's interests.
Assad said his country was also open to "advice" from abroad but "does not take orders".
"Foreign initiatives can help us on two levels: on the political level and to fight terrorism... by stopping arms and armed men from entering Syria," he said.
In closing remarks that drew thunderous applause, Assad said: "I am from the people and I will continue to be one of the people. Positions come and go but the nation remains."