BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad warned in comments broadcast Friday that the fall of his regime or the breakup of his nation will cause a "domino effect" that will fuel Middle East instability for years, in his sharpest warning yet about the potential fallout of his country's civil war on neighboring states.
In Moscow, Russia's president said the Syrian conflict has become "a massacre" that must be stopped through peace talks, and repeated the Kremlin's firm rejection of calls for Assad's ouster.
The Syrian regime is under growing pressure from an increasingly effective rebel movement that has managed to pry much of northern Syria away from the government and has made significant headway recently in the south in capturing territory and military bases. The rebel advances appear to have given them momentum and put the government on the defensive in the 2-year-old conflict that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 70,000 people.
In an interview with the Turkish TV station Ulusal Kanal broadcast Friday, Assad accused his neighbors of stoking the revolt against his rule, saying "we are surrounded by countries that help terrorists and allow them to enter Syria." But he warned that those same countries may eventually pay a price down the road.
"Everybody knows that if the disturbances in Syria reach the point of country's breakup, or terrorist forces control Syria, or if the two cases happen, then this will immediately spill over into neighboring countries first, and later there will be a domino effect that will reach countries across the Middle East," he said.
He also lashed out at Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was a close ally of Assad before the crisis began but then turned into one of his harshest critics.
"When the prime minister (Erdogan), or the government or officials get involved in shedding Syrian people's blood there is no place for bridges between me and them or the Syrian people that don't respect them," Assad said.
Turkey has been one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition, and has provided it with logistical support and shelter.
The president also used the interview to quash rumors that he had been killed by one of his guards in the capital Damascus.
Asked by a journalist whether he is still alive, Assad told Ulusal Kanal: "I am present in front of you and not in a shelter. These are mere rumors."
He said he is living as usual in Syria and is not hiding in underground shelters.
The Syrian revolt started with largely peaceful protests in March 2011 but has developed into a civil war with increasingly sectarian overtones. Sunni Muslims dominate rebel ranks, while the Assad regime is composed mostly of Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group to which the president and his family belong.
Russia, a close Assad ally, has shielded Damascus from U.N. sanctions and largely stood by the regime, although it has also signaled that it is not tied to his remaining in power. At the same time, it has refused to back calls for Assad to step down, and has instead pushed for talks with the opposition.
Speaking to the German ARD television in remarks released by the Kremlin on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated Moscow's firm rejection of calls for Assad's ouster.