Syrian President Bashar Assad warned the Middle East will burn if the West intervenes in his country's 7-month-old uprising, threatening to turn the region into "tens of Afghanistans."
Assad's comments, published in an interview with Britain's Sunday Telegraph, were his harshest so far regarding the potential for foreign intervention. But they belie a growing concern over the possibility of some sort of Western military action after months of NATO airstrikes helped rebellious Libyans oust Moammar Gadhafi.
"Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake," Assad said. "Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?"
Still the U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.
And unlike Gadhafi, Assad enjoys a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure. A conflict in Syria risks touching off a wider Middle East conflict with arch foes Israel and Iran in the mix. Syria wouldn't have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey. Syria is the closest Arab ally of Iran and has ties to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and other radical groups including the militant Palestinian Hamas.
Syrian opposition leaders have not called for an armed uprising like the one in Libya and have for the most part opposed foreign intervention.
But there are growing calls from anti-government protesters for a no-fly zone over Syria because of fears the regime might use its air force given increasingly frequent clashes between government troops and army defectors.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a clash Saturday night in the restive central city of Homs between soldiers and gunmen believed to be army defectors left at least 20 soldiers dead and 53 wounded. It also said gunmen ambushed a bus carrying security officers late Saturday in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing at least 10 security agents. One attacker was also killed.
The Associated Press could not verify the activists' accounts. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground. Syria's state-run news agency SANA, said seven members of the military and police, who were killed in Homs and the suburbs of Damascus were buried Sunday.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Sunday that 343 people, including 20 children, have been killed in Syria since Oct. 16, when the Cairo-based Arab League gave Damascus a 15-day deadline to enact a cease-fire. A meeting was scheduled for later Sunday in Qatar between an Arab committee set up by the 22-member Arab League and a Syrian delegation expected to be headed by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
The LCC added that security forces killed seven people Sunday, three of them in Homs, two in the southern province of Daraa, another in the central region of Hama and one in Idlib. The observatory said at least two people were killed Sunday, one in Homs and another in Idlib.
In case of international intervention, Assad and his main Mideast backer, Iran, could launch retaliatory attacks on Israel or _ more likely _ unleash Hezbollah fighters or Palestinian militant allies to do the job. To the north, Turkey has opened its doors to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels, which also could bring Syrian reprisals.
Assad alluded to those concerns at home and abroad, saying "any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region."
The uprising against the Syrian regime began during a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The U.N. says that Assad's crackdown has left more than 3,000 people dead since mid-March.
Facing an unprecedented threat to his rule, Assad is desperate to show that only he can guarantee security in a troubled region where failed states abound.
In a show of support for the regime, thousands of Syrians carrying the nation's flag and Assad posters rallied Sunday in a major square in the southern city of Sweida, some 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border. There have been two similar massive pro-Assad demonstrations in recent days in the capital Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia.
Assad said that Western countries "are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely." He was apparently referring to a wave of sanctions that were imposed by the European Union and the U.S.
"But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different," Assad said.
The Syrian president described the uprising as a "struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism." He was referring to his ruling Baath party's secular ideology and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that was crushed by his regime in 1982.
"We've been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them," Assad said.
Assad also spoke to Russia's state Channel One television, and in an interview broadcast Sunday hailed Moscow's veto of a European-backed U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria that aimed to impose sanctions on Damascus.
"We are relying on Russia as a country with which we have strong historic ties," Assad said.
The measure vetoed by Russia and China earlier this month would have been the first legally binding resolution against Syria since Assad's forces began attacking civilian protesters.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue