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By Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Syrians said on Monday they
expected only war after a speech by President Bashar al-Assad
that was billed as a peace plan, and fighting resumed in the
capital just a few miles from where he spoke.
Hours after Assad addressed cheering loyalists at the
Damascus Opera House on Sunday, clashes raged just a few miles
away near the road to the city's international airport, the
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The opposition-linked group said artillery hit the district
of Arqaba, 3 miles (5 km) from the Opera House. Fighting
continued all night and into Monday around the capital, as well
as in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, it said.
Damascus residents said the speech was met with celebratory
gunfire in pro-Assad neighbourhoods. But even there, some saw no
sign peace was any closer, although the cabinet was due to begin
implementing the plan to "solve the crisis in Syria".
A loyalist resident of southern Damascus who gave only her
first name, Aliaa, said the speech was eloquent but empty. "It
sounded more like gloating than making promises," she said.
"I agree with the ideas but words are really just words
until he takes some action. He needs to do something. But even
so, everything he suggests now, it is too late, the rebels
aren't going to stop."
In the once-affluent district of Mezzeh, scene of several
bomb attacks, an Assad critic said people had more pressing
concerns. "Here, no one cares about this speech. They care about
food and electricity."
Another said few people had watched the speech and that
Assad's crackdown would not stop. "Military operations will
continue in full swing, and he is staying."
France joined the United States in saying Assad's speech,
his first to an audience since June last year, showed he had
lost touch with reality after 21 months of conflict in which the
United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed.
The plan he described as a new peace initiative offered no
concessions, and Assad disparaged the prospect of talks with an
opposition he branded puppets of the West.
Instead, he summoned Syrians to mobilise for a "war to
defend the state". He proposed an army cease fire, but only
after rebels halt their operations.
Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halki called on Monday for a
special cabinet meeting to implement the "national programme
announced by President Bashar al-Assad yesterday to solve the
crisis in Syria", the state news agency SANA said.
George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National
Coalition, said the putative peace plan "did not even deserve to
be called an initiative".
"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will
continue his war against the Syrian people," he told Reuters.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the
speech "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power".
"His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the
efforts of (U.N. peace envoy) Joint Special Representative
Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further
perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people."
Assad's main ally Iran defended the speech as offering a
"comprehensive political process". "This plan rejects violence
and terrorism and any foreign interference," Iranian Foreign
Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement.
There was no immediate response from Moscow, which has acted
as Assad's main protector on the diplomatic stage. Sunday and
Monday were part of the orthodox Christmas holiday when Russian
state offices are mainly quiet.
Syrian state television showed footage of convoys of cars
driving through main streets in Damascus. People waving the
Syrian flag leaned out of the car windows and some braved the
cold and rain to walk alongside the convoy.
"It was a victorious speech that respects the martyred
Syrian soldiers," said a man on state TV, adding that a
camouflaged vest he was wearing was that of his brother, who was
killed fighting the opposition.
After six months of advances, rebels now control wide
swathes of northern and eastern Syria, most of its border
crossings with Turkey and a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts
But Assad's government is still entrenched in the capital
and controls most of the densely-populated southwest, the
Mediterranean coast, the main north-south highway and military
bases countrywide. Its helicopters and jets are able to strike
rebel-held areas with impunity.
A video posted by Islamist rebels on the internet on Monday
showed a huge explosion at walled a compound of concrete
buildings, filmed from a distance. The Observatory's head, Rami
Abdelrahman, said the film showed a car bomb attack in central
Hama province two months ago that killed dozens of soldiers.
Israel has also been watching warily from the Golan Heights,
which it captured from Syria in the 1967 war and which, prior to
the anti-Assad insurgency, had been mostly quiet for decades.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday
Israel would erect a fence along the Golan armistice line to
keep out jihadist rebels who, he said, had dislodged Assad's
troops on the Syrian side. Much of the Golan is already fenced,
and Israel has been reinforcing the fence for months after
pro-Palestinian demonstrators twice tried to storm across in