Beirut: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday blamed "foreign planning" for a 10-month-old popular uprising in which thousands of people have been killed and vowed to strike "terrorists with an iron fist."
Assad, speaking in public for the first time since June, also said he welcomed the idea of expanding the government to include "all political forces" and held out the prospect of a referendum in March on a new constitution for Syria.
His speech was delivered at Damascus University and broadcast on state television.
Since the uprising began, Assad has responded with a mixture of repression and promises of reform and dialogue. Opposition forces say the bloodshed shows the real face of a leader whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed by security forces trying to suppress anti-Assad demonstrations that erupted in March, inspired by a wave of revolts against Arab autocrats across the Middle East.
Syrian authorities say foreign-backed armed "terrorists" have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.
Despite the high casualty toll, Assad denied any policy to shoot demonstrators. "There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen," he said.
But he stressed his priority was to restore order in Syria and that could only be achieved by "hitting terrorists with an iron fist.
"There is no tolerance for terrorism or for those who use weapons to kill," said Assad.
The struggle in Syria, Iran`s only Arab ally, has alarmed its neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Iraq.
Heading For War
"The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former friend of Assad who has become one of his fiercest critics, said on Monday.
The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November and announced sanctions, has sent in monitors to judge whether Damascus is complying with a peace plan calling for withdrawal of troops from cities, prisoner releases and political dialogue.
Syrian opposition figures said on Monday the League mission, which began work on December 26, had failed to stop the bloodshed and was only giving Assad more time to crush his opponents.
After a review meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League said Damascus had only partly implemented its pledges, but decided to keep the observer mission going for now. An official said the size of the team would rise to 200 this week from 165.
In his speech, Assad said he would not "close the door" to any Arab solution that respects Syrian sovereignty.
Syrian opposition figures have called for action by the UN Security Council to halt Assad`s offensive against protesters.
"We need to know what the League will do if the regime continues its crackdown in the presence of the monitors. At one point it needs to refer Syria to the UN Security Council," said Rima Fleihan, of the opposition Syrian National Council.
The League appears divided over whether to take such a step, which in the case of Libya led to foreign military intervention that helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Russia and China have opposed any Security Council move on Syria, while Western powers hostile to Assad have so far shown little appetite for Libya-style intervention in a country that sits in a far more combustible area of the Middle East.
The United States and the United Nations have both offered to provide the League monitors with technical help if asked.
Arab League officials said the future of the monitoring mission, due to make a full report on January 19, depended on the Syrian government`s commitment to ending the daily bloodshed.
Syrian opposition groups have struggled to unify or to form a widely accepted representative council.
They are split over the role of armed resistance in what began as a peaceful protest movement, the weight Islamist groups should have in any joint opposition body, and the scope for Arab, UN or other external action to drive Assad from power.
Opposition leaders meeting in Istanbul gave Burhan Ghalioun a one-month extension as head of the Syrian National Council on Monday, after earlier rejecting a draft accord he had signed with a rival opposition group.