Syria's foreign minister warned the international community Sunday not to recognize a new umbrella council formed by the opposition, threatening "tough measures" against any country that does so.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem did not specify what measures Damascus might take. But he went on to say that countries that do not protect Syrian missions could find their own embassies treated in the same way.
"We will take tough measures against any country that recognizes this illegitimate council," al-Moallem said without elaborating on what type of reaction it might bring.
The Syrian National Council, announced last week in Turkey, is a broad-based group which includes most major opposition factions. No country or international body has recognized it so far as a legal representative of the Syrian people.
Bourhan Ghalioun, the opposition council's most prominent official, said he expects the organization will be recognized "in the coming few weeks." Al-Moallem's comments came as the council was scheduled to hold two meetings Sunday, one in Cairo and another in Stockholm.
Damascus appears concerned that if the Syrian National Council is recognized by the international community, it could play the same role as the National Transitional Council in Libya that ultimately overthrew longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Syria's top diplomat was speaking during a joint news conference with a delegation from the left-leaning ALBA bloc of mostly Latin American countries, which includes Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. The ALBA officials were visiting Damascus to express solidarity with Syria and met Sunday with President Bashar Assad.
State-run news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling the delegation that Syria aims to make political reforms then end armed presence. But past promises of sweeping reforms have not been carried through and the opposition says they will accept nothing short of his departure.
"The foreign attack on Syria escalated after the situation started to improve because what they want is not reforms but for Syria to pay a price for its stances against foreign schemes in the region," SANA quoted Assad as saying.
Assad was apparently referring to sanctions imposed by the U.S. and several European countries on his regime because of the crackdown. Assad insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and Islamic extremists acting out a foreign conspiracy to fracture Syria.
Assad is facing the most serious challenge to his authority since he took power 11 years ago. The uprising against his regime began in mid-March amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that has so far toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Assad has reacted with deadly force that the U.N. estimates has left some 2,900 people dead.
Al-Moallem criticized European countries where Syrian missions have recently been stormed by protesters, implying that Damascus might allow foreign delegations to be attacked in turn.
"If they don't provide security to our missions, we will treat them the same way," he said.
A group of protesters broke into the Syrian embassy in Berlin and two other Syrian diplomatic missions in Germany and Switzerland late Saturday and early Sunday in what appeared to protests against the killing of a Kurdish opposition leader.
He also criticized the U.S. and the French ambassador to Syria, who have condemned the regime's crackdown and visited tense areas outside Damascus angering authorities.
"We don't interfere in their business the way some of them do in Damascus," he said.
Last month, U.S. ambassador Robert Ford and several colleagues from the embassy were pelted with tomatoes and eggs as they visited an opposition figure. U.S. officials said the assault was part of a campaign to intimidate diplomats investigating Assad's repression of pro-reform demonstrators.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of Kurdish mourners gathered in a northeastern city for the funeral of five people killed by security forces, a rights activist in the area said.
Mustafa Osso added that more than a 100 security agents in uniform have deployed in the main square of Qamishli ahead of the funeral, as unrest builds in the majority-Kurdish region.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed scores of people marching in streets said to be in Qamishli and chanting anti-Assad slogans.
"The people want to execute the president," chanted the crowd that was carrying a black banner and Kurdish white, green, red and yellow flags. "Assad is the enemy of God."
Sunday's procession came a day after more than 50,000 mourners marched through Qamishli to mourn prominent opposition figure Mashaal Tammo. Security forces fired into the crowds, killing five people.
Tammo was assassinated Friday.
The turnout Saturday was by far the largest in the Kurdish northeast since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime seven months ago.
Al-Moallem described Tammo as a "martyr" and blamed a terrorist group for his death because the Kurdish leader stood against any foreign intervention in Syria.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue