President Bashar al-Assad slams Arab League, Arab countries, pledges reform and elections

Opposition reject address, terming it as inciting one that pushes for civil war

Syrian opposition blame regime for last week’s bombing in Damascus

Arab League chief denounces violence against Arab observers

Russian warships anchor in Tartus

In his first public speech since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad showed no signs Tuesday that he was willing to compromise on his crackdown on anti-government protesters, promising an "iron hand" even as his country veers dangerously close to civil war after 10 months of protests and violence.

In a two-hour speech, Assad rejected calls for his resignation, and he stuck to familiar themes, painting protesters as terrorists whose actions are only delaying the implementation of long-promised reforms and blaming his regime's problems on Western conspiracies and Arab betrayals.

He voiced particular scorn for the Arab League, which has suspended Syria's membership and dispatched monitors to investigate the crisis.

Assad called the league a weak and ineffective body that's done little to further Arab causes, mocking its "failure" to stop the war in Iraq, keep Sudan united, feed starving Somalis or return "even an olive tree" to Palestinians.

"The Arab League is a reflection of our miserable Arab state," Assad said in the speech, which was televised live from Damascus University. "If it's failed over the course of six decades to take action that would benefit Arabs, why would we be surprised today?"

After Assad spoke, the Kuwait state news agency KUNA reported that two Kuwaiti army officers were injured when "unknown protesters" attacked a team of Arab League monitors in Syria's northern city of Latakia.

Amateur videos posted online purport to show pro-Assad gangs destroying a marked SUV said to belong to the monitors. In one minute-long clip, crowds chant Assad's nickname as they surround the badly damaged vehicle, whose doors were smashed and tires flattened.

The Arab League has said it holds the Syrian government responsible for the safety of more than 150 observers who are in the country to determine whether it's complying with a league-brokered agreement that Syria signed last month.

In a statement Tuesday, the Arab League blamed both the regime and the opposition for the attack, saying it was "an attempt to foil its mission."

Such highly public discord signals just how isolated Assad has become in the past year, as international pressure has mounted against his lethal campaign to crush the protest movement.

More than 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.N., and activists say dozens more have died since that tally was released.

Assad gave no indication Tuesday that international condemnation has moved him.

"Our concern today is that such a speech is quite indicative of the total dismissal by the regime of the international community," Basma Qadmani, a member of the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told a news conference in Istanbul. "And that is an indication that we are going in the direction of more irresponsible and more criminal behavior by the regime in the coming days and weeks."

In recent months, armed rebels have stepped up their attacks on the authorities, leading to a spike in casualties among state security forces. And the Syrian forces' relentless attacks on protesters in at least a half-dozen towns continue despite the Arab League monitors' presence. With a ban on independent reporting, most of the conflict's news comes from a steady stream of amateur video showing tortured and executed protesters, the authenticity of which is impossible to verify.

As the crisis edges toward an all-out civil war whose effects could be devastating for volatile neighbors such as Israel and Iraq, activists' calls for international intervention are growing louder.

Syrian proponents of foreign military assistance are keenly aware of the risks of seeking a Libya-style intervention, in which NATO forces helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.

They worry that outside assistance could result in a prolonged Iraq-style occupation or that seeking the help could rally support for Assad.

"I'd never like to see my country bombed by foreign armies, but what we've arrived at is catastrophic," said Abdulhamid Soliman, 26, an architect who fled Syria for Egypt four months ago after a brief arrest for participating in protests. "But no one is willing to guarantee any form of protection to Syrians because they don't want to pay the price after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya."

Analysts agree that Western nations haven't shown a willingness to undertake another such conflict, especially with the United States in an election year. Foreign powers have exhausted their options for sanctions, their calls for Assad's ouster and their condemnations of the violence.

That's left the Arab League under intense pressure to stop the conflict from escalating.

"The Arab League will totally lose its legitimacy if it demands international intervention. We don't want to see another NATO-led revolution like Libya," said Omar al Hassan, a Syrian-educated Bahraini who heads the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies, a research organization based in London.

"The Syrian uprising isn't like those of Egypt and Tunisia, where the people would overthrow the regime, and it's very apparent that the Arab League is incapable of controlling the situation in Syria," Hassan said. "But if it resorts to another Western-backed solution, it'll be adding one more black chapter to its history of incompetence. There should be an Arab solution."

The Syrian opposition on Friday blamed President Bashar al-Assad's regime for a bombing in the capital Damascus that killed 26 people, according to the state news agency.

A bomber blew himself up at a traffic intersection in a residential area, wounding 60 people, mainly civilians, the report said.

The blast took place near an elementary school in al-Midan quarter, in central Damascus, state television reported.

'The regime is fully responsible for this bombing,' opposition politician Kamal al-Lubwani told broadcaster Al Arabiya from Jordan. 'The same regime is responsible for every drop of blood being shed on Syrian land.'

Syrian television showed people collecting remains of bodies in black plastic bags from the streets, damaged cars and buses. The opposition noted that state television showed footage of the bombing minutes after it took place. 'The matter looks suspicious. Camera crews of Syrian television were already there waiting for the blast to occur to film it,' said journalist Hakam al-Baba.

The bombing came two weeks after a twin suicide attack in Damascus killed 44 people and wounded 166, according to state-run media.

Damascus blamed that blast on al-Qaeda militants who it claimed might have crossed into the country from neighboring Lebanon.

Friday's bombing was carried out two days before the Arab League was to discuss a report about an observer mission dispatched to Syria to end 10 months of bloodshed.

The mission, the first in the history of the 67-year-old organization, has been criticized for failing to stop the Syrian government's crackdown on dissent.

At least 19 people, including three army defectors, were killed Friday by government forces in several areas of Syria, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) said of the government's continuing crackdown.

Most of the deaths were in the central provinces of Hama and Homs and the suburbs of Damascus during protests, said the LCC, which is a network of opposition activists.

The protesters called for referring the Syrian crisis to the United Nations Security Council and for international protection against the government clampdown, said activists.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said last week that he had asked the leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, who lives in exile in Syria, to convey a message to Damascus to stop the violence.

'The message also calls for the Syrian leadership to work transparently and credibly,' al-Arabi said after talks with Mashaal in Cairo.

The uprising against al-Assad's regime started in mid-March.

The government's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has killed more than 5,000 people, according to UN estimates.

The Arab League is blaming both the Syrian government and opposition for attacks on its observers in Syria.

Arab League head Nabil Elaraby indicated such attacks could bring about the end of the observer mission.

He spoke after protesters mobbed a Kuwaiti observers' vehicle, slightly injuring two officers. Protesters posted video showing that the attackers were backers of the Bashar Assad regime.

Elaraby said Tuesday that the Syrian government is responsible for ensuring the safety of the observers. Their mission is to monitor compliance with an Arab League plan to stop violence after a 10-month uprising and a bloody crackdown on protesters.

He called on both the government and opposition to stop "instigation," so that the Arab League would not be forced to "freeze its mission."

The group of Russian military ships that set sail for violence-gripped Syria has reached its destination on Sunday, report agencies.

The fleet, reported to include carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, has arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting official agency SANA.

SANA has reported that the ships will stay in Tartus for six days as a sign of support for the Syrian people.

Some perceive the move as a gesture of support for embattled Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, who has been facing strong popular protests since March 2011.

Assad has ruthlessly crushed the pro-democracy protests using heavy army units, which has resulted in 5,000 civilian deaths since March.

While western leaders have called on the Syrian President to step down, Russia has been more cautious, supporting pro-democracy measures, but not wanting to call for resignation on the part of the president.

The news of the Russian ships' arrival in Syria comes at a time when Arab League Foreign Affairs Ministers are about to meet in Cairo to discuss the findings of an Arab League mission to Syria.

The Arab League representatives are also expected to decide whether to call for UN assistance to resolve the bloodshed.