U.N. Commander Says Syria Violence Is 'Unprecedented'

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LONDON -- The officer commanding United Nations monitors in Syria said on Thursday that violence there has reached "unprecedented" levels, making it impossible for his unarmed observers to resume their mission, which was suspended last month.

But President Bashar al-Assad gave no indication that he was planning to ease the 16-month-old crackdown on his country's revolt, saying in a newspaper interview published in Turkey that he would maintain what he called "the fight against terrorism."

In mid-June, the United Nations said it was suspending its observer mission in Syria because of the escalating violence after its monitors were routinely blocked or attacked as they sought to approach the scenes of fighting.

The suspension was one of the most severe blows to months of international efforts to negotiate a peace plan and forestall a descent into civil war.

At the time, the United Nations said the monitors would not be withdrawn but would be locked down in Syria's most contested cities, unable to conduct patrols.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway, who commands the United Nations monitors, told reporters on Thursday that "the escalation of violence, allow me to say to an unprecedented level, obstructed our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue."

It would be impossible to revive his mission without a cease-fire, General Mood said. But, in the third installment of an interview that Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper has published this week, Mr. Assad showed no readiness to heed either cease-fire calls or a plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the special envoy on Syria, for a transitional government.

The series of excerpts from the interview, conducted last Sunday in Damascus, has provided a rare insight into Mr. Assad's thinking both on his plight at home and on regional relationships, strained by the action of Syrian gunners who shot down a Turkish warplane over the Mediterranean last month.

Turkish news outlets said on Wednesday that the bodies of the two crew members aboard the downed F-4 Phantom warplane had been recovered with help from Robert Ballard, the American undersea explorer who found the Titanic. Officials have said they expect the wreckage to yield evidence on precisely how the plane was shot down.

The semiofficial Anatolian News Agency said on Thursday that the bodies of the pilots were removed from the wreck in the eastern Mediterranean and transferred to Malatya, where the warplane took off on its doomed mission on June 22. Turkey says Syria brought down the plane over international waters, but Syria says it was in Syrian airspace at the time.

In discussing the episode with Cumhuriyet, Mr. Assad also ranged over the broader issue of his survival through 16 months of uprising, his determination to put down the revolt and his insistence that he has the support of the bulk of Syrians.

"Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time," Mr. Assad told the newspaper. "They all miscalculated."

His country, he said, was under attack by Islamist militants sponsored by Arab adversaries and faced the hostility of both the West and neighboring Turkey, a NATO member with whom Mr. Assad once had friendly relations.

"The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected," Mr. Assad said. "The aim is to break up Syria or trigger a civil war. The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this. And we will defeat terror."

"The overwhelming majority of the people think like me on this subject," he said.

Mr. Assad referred to the shah of Iran, who was overthrown by the Islamic revolution in 1979, but said his own position was different because he has popular support among Syrians.

The shah, he said, "led the most important country in the region, he had a powerful army and was supported by the whole world. So was he able to stand up against the people? No."

"If I had been in the same situation, that is, if I didn't have the people behind me, I could not have resisted. I would have been overthrown. How come I'm still standing?" Mr. Assad was quoted as saying.

In the first part of the interview published on Tuesday, Mr. Assad seemed to be seeking to repair regional tensions, saying he regretted the downing of the Turkish plane but repeating Syria's version of what had happened.

But he sounded far less conciliatory in the second part on Wednesday, bitterly criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who is now a leading voice in the international calls for Mr. Assad to resign.

Asked if he had burned his bridges with Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Assad replied, "Yes, almost."

Mr. Assad's contention that outside terrorist agitators are responsible for the violence in Syria was partly corroborated on Tuesday by the claims of the Al Nusra Front, a shadowy group aligned with Al Qaeda, that it was responsible for a number of attacks on pro-government targets in Syria last month, including one at a television station on June 27 that killed seven people.

In Internet chatter reported by the SITE jihadist monitoring group in Washington, Al Nusra said its fighters had attacked the station to make the Assad government "taste from the cup of torture."

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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