BEIRUT — By turns defiant and threatening, President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to use an "iron hand" to crush what he called the terrorists and saboteurs behind Syria's 10-month-old uprising in which thousands of people have been killed.
In his first speech since June, Assad showed a steely confidence in the face of the uprising, one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring. But opponents called it a rambling address by a leader who is dangerously out of touch.
Assad repeated his past claims that a foreign conspiracy and terrorists are driving the revolt, not peaceful protesters seeking to reform the country.
"We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country," Assad said in a nearly two-hour speech at Damascus University in a conference hall packed with cheering supporters. He also issued a veiled threat against those who have yet to choose sides.
"Those who stand in the middle are traitors," Assad said, flanked by Syrian flags. "There is no alternative."
The conflict in Syria is entering a new and heightened phase, with army defectors and some members of the opposition increasingly turning their weapons on government targets. The regime, in turn, has intensified an already deadly military assault, and a U.N. official said Tuesday that about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks alone, on top of an earlier U.N. estimate of more than 5,000 dead since March.
Since Dec. 23, three mysterious blasts have struck the capital, killing scores of people in the kind of violence more commonly seen in neighboring Iraq. It's unclear who is behind the bombings, which the regime said were suicide attacks.
The regime has blamed "terrorists" for the explosions, saying they proved that Syria was fighting armed gangs. But the opposition accuses forces loyal to the regime of carrying out the attacks as a way to tarnish the uprising.
Assad also denounced the Arab League, which sent a team of observers into Syria in late December to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that the regime agreed to on Dec. 19. On Monday, a group of Arab League observers was reportedly attacked in northern Syria, suffering minor injuries.
New deaths were reported Tuesday, with activists saying security forces killed at least 10 people in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, despite the presence of an Arab observer mission in the area.
Assad, 46, inherited power 11 years ago from his father and has adopted tactics similar to those of other autocratic leaders in the region who scrambled to put down uprisings by unleashing a crackdown on their people.
The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily — until people accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime. But Syria's conflict has gone on far longer, and the death toll is mounting daily.
"We will declare victory soon," Assad said, insisting that he still has the support of his people. "When I leave this post, it will be also based upon the people's wishes," he added.
He vowed a strong response to any threats, setting the stage for more violence.
"Our priority now is to regain the security we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand," Assad said.
Regime opponents denounced the speech.