BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday outlined a new peace initiative that includes a national reconciliation conference and a new government and constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels first.

Assad ignored international demands for him to step down and said he is ready to hold a dialogue with those “who have not betrayed Syria.”

Syrian opposition forces, including rebels on the ground, are likely to reject Assad’s proposal. They have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

“We are in a state of war. We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other,” he said.

He stressed the presence of religious extremists and jihadi elements among those fighting in Syria, calling them “terrorists who carry the ideology of al-Qaeda” and “servants who know nothing but the language of slaughter.”

Assad was speaking Sunday in a rare address to the nation, his first since June. He spoke to a packed hall at the Opera House in central Damascus, and the audience frequently often broke out in cheers and applause.

Wearing a suit and tie, the president spoke before a collage of pictures of what appeared to be Syrians who have been killed since March 2011.

The Internet was cut in many parts of Damascus ahead of the address, apparently for security reasons.

As in previous speeches, Assad said his forces were fighting groups of “murderous criminals” and jihadi elements and denied that there was an uprising against his family’s decades-long rule.

He struck a defiant tone, saying Syria will not take dictates from anyone but urged Syrians to unite to save the country.

“The first part of a political solution would require regional powers to stop funding and arming (the rebels), an end to terrorism and controlling the borders,” he said.

He said this would then be followed by dialogue and a national reconciliation conference and the formation of a wide representative government which would then oversee new elections, a new constitution and general amnesty.

However, Assad made clear his offer to hold a dialogue is not open to those whom he considers extremists or carrying out a foreign agenda.

“We never rejected a political solution … but with whom should we talk? With those who have extremist ideology who only understand the language of terrorism?” he said.

“Or should we with negotiate [with] puppets whom the West brought. … We negotiate with the master not with the slave.”

As in previous speeches and interviews, he clung to the view that the crisis in Syria was a foreign-backed agenda and said it was not an uprising against his rule.

“Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God I say they are a bunch of criminals,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad waves at supporters in Damascus's Opera Hall on Sunday, Jan. 6 (image capture: BBC)

Syrian President Bashar Assad waves at supporters in Damascus’s Opera Hall on Sunday, Jan. 6 (image capture: BBC)

Fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces raged across the country hours before Assad’s address, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels fighting to topple the Assad regime have clashed with troops in the southern province of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising in March 2011. Violence also raged in opposition strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus, which rebels are using as bases to assail the government’s heavy defenses in the capital. The regime has responded with a withering assault including barrages by artillery and warplanes.

Assad last spoke publicly in November, vowing to Russia Today TV that he won’t step down despite continued opposition to his rule and international sanctions aimed at isolating his regime. In the Nov. 8 interview, the embattled president dismissed suggestions that he will leave his country as civil war is approaching his seat of power in Damascus, saying he would “live and die in Syria.”

It was not clear what new initiative, if any, Assad could announce during his speech. In each of his previous speeches and interviews, the president has dug in his heels saying his regime is fighting a war against terrorists.

Diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian crisis have failed so far to bring an end to the bloodshed, although the international community continues to push for a peaceful settlement.

The president of the UN Security Council said Thursday there are important developments in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the 21-month conflict in Syria and there could be another U.S.-Russia meeting with international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi next week.

Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both said after their meeting last week that the Syrian crisis can only be settled through talks, while admitting that neither the government nor the opposition has shown a desire to compromise. Neither official hinted at a possible solution that would persuade the two sides to agree to a ceasefire and sit down for talks about a political transition.

But Lavrov said Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of stepping down — a key opposition demand — and it would be impossible to try to persuade him otherwise. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian government, and has shielded it from punitive measures at the UN

The revolt started with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to a recent United Nations recent estimate.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.