BEIRUT – Western powers risk causing an "earthquake" across the Middle East if they intervene in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad said, after protesters called for foreign protection from a crackdown in which 3000 people have been killed.
Assad's warning came ahead of Syrian government talks on Sunday with the Arab League aimed at starting a dialogue between the government and opposition and ending violence which has escalated across Syria in recent days.
Activists said Syrian forces killed more than 50 civilians in the last 48 hours and one activist group said suspected army deserters killed 30 soldiers in clashes in the city of Homs and in an ambush in the northern province of Idlib on Saturday.
Assad's suppression of the seven-month uprising has drawn criticism from the United Nations and Arab League. Western governments have called on him to step down and imposed sanctions on Syrian oil exports and state businesses.
Western countries "are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely," Assad told Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
"But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different."
"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."
NATO military intervention in Libya played a decisive role in toppling Muammar Qadhafi, the third Arab leader to be overthrown after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Western nations have shown no appetite to repeat their Libyan operation in Syria, but demonstrators are increasingly calling for a "no-fly zone" over their country.
"Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?" Assad said. "Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region."
Since the start of protests in March, Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on foreign-backed gunmen and religious extremists they say have killed 1100 soldiers and police.
Syria has barred most international media, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
But the resilience of the protesters, the determination of authorities to crush dissent and the emerging armed insurgency have combined to make Syria's turmoil one of the most intractable confrontations of this year's Arab uprisings.
Assad, whose father put down an armed Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing many thousands, said the latest crisis was part of the same conflict.
"We've been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them," he said.
Authorities had made "many mistakes" in the early part of the uprising, but he said the situation had now improved and that he had started implementing reform within a week of the troubles erupting in mid-March.
"The pace of reform is not too slow. The vision needs to be mature. It would take only 15 seconds to sign a law, but if it doesn't fit your society, you'll have division," he said.
Assad's opponents say although he lifted emergency law and gave citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds, his promises of reform ring hollow while security forces kill protesters and arrest thousands of people. They also say protests are driven by a desire for greater freedoms, not by an Islamist agenda.
Friday's shooting of demonstrators prompted Arab ministers to issue their strongest call yet on Assad to end the killing of civilians.
The Arab League's committee on the Syrian crisis sent an "urgent message to the Syrian government expressing its severe discontent over the continued killing of Syrian civilians."
A source at Syria's Foreign Ministry, quoted by state media, said the Arab League statement was "based on media lies" and urged the committee to "help restore stability in Syria instead of stirring sedition."
An Arab League ministerial group is due to meet Syrian officials on Sunday in Qatar to press for dialogue between the government and opposition.
Syria, a majority Sunni Muslim nation of 20 million people, is dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Aware of potentially seismic geopolitical implications if Assad were to fall, leaders in the mostly Sunni Arab world have been cautious about criticizing the Syrian president as they struggle with domestic challenges to their own rule.
Sunni ascendancy in Syria could affect Israel and shake up regional alliances. Assad strengthened ties with Shia Iran while also upholding his father's policy of avoiding conflict with Israel on the occupied Golan Heights frontier.