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Assad gives defiant speech as Syrian rebels edge closer to Damascus

Nearly two years after the beginning of a civil war in Syria, an estimated 60,000 people have died. In a rare speech Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad refused to end the conflict. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

Updated at 4:52 p.m. ET: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday outlined what was billed as a new peace initiative that included a national reconciliation conference and a new constitution in a rare speech about the uprising against his rule, which has killed an estimated 60,000 people and brought civil war to the edge of his capital.

His foes reacted to the speech with scorn.

George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National Coalition, told Reuters the peace plan Assad put at the heart of his speech did "not even deserve to be called an initiative."

"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people," he said.

Speaking before an overwhelmingly supportive crowd that interrupted his speech with chants and rapturous applause several times, Assad offered no concessions and even appeared to harden many of his positions. He rallied Syrians for "a war to defend the nation" and disparaged the prospect of negotiations. There was little to no acknowledgement that there are Syrians themselves who have taken up the fight.

"We do not reject political dialogue ... but with whom should we hold a dialogue? With extremists who don't believe in any language but killing and terrorism?" Assad asked.

"Should we speak to gangs recruited abroad that follow the orders of foreigners? Should we have official dialogue with a puppet made by the West, which has scripted its lines?"

In an interview with a Russian television channel, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to live and die in Syria, amid the 19-month old uprising against him. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Assad said his initiative would not move forward until foreign funding for the rebels stops.

The European Union responded quickly, saying there can be no political solution until Assad steps down, a subject the Syrian president did not address in today's speech. 

The State Department responded in a statement saying that Assad’s speech is “yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power.”

“His initiative is detached from reality,” the State Department said, and “would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people.” 

It was the 47-year-old leader's first speech in months and his first public comments since he dismissed suggestions that he might go into exile to end the civil war, telling Russian television in November that he would "live and die" in Syria.

As in previous speeches, he said his forces were fighting groups of "murderous criminals" and jihadi elements and denied there was an uprising against his family's decades-long rule.   He struck a defiant tone, saying Syria will not take dictates from anyone. 

At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: "God, Syria and Bashar is enough!" as a smiling president waved and was escorted from the hall past a backdrop showing a Syrian flag made of pictures of people whom state television described as "martyrs" of the conflict so far. 

PhotoBlog: Destruction, resistance in war-torn Syria

Insurgents are venturing ever closer to Damascus after bringing a crescent of suburbs under their control from the city's eastern outskirts to the southwest. 

Assad's forces blasted rockets into the Jobar neighborhood near the city center on Saturday to try to drive out rebel fighters, a day after bombarding rebel-held areas in the eastern suburb of Daraya. 

"The shelling began in the early hours of the morning, it has intensified since 11 a.m. (4 a.m. ET), and now it has become really heavy. Yesterday it was Daraya and today Jobar is the hottest spot in Damascus," an activist named Housam told Reuters by Skype from the capital. 

Assad officials in Moscow to discuss end to civil war

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, a London-based group that supports the opposition, said it documented 76 deaths throughout Syria on Saturday, 35 of them in and around the capital Damascus. Reporting in Syria is severely restricted, and NBC News could not confirm these numbers.

Amid violence and chaos in Syria, 400 US troops have been deployed to Turkey with Patriot missile batteries to bolster defenses along the border. NBC's Annabel Roberts reports.

Since Assad's last public comments, in November, rebels have strengthened their hold on swathes of territory across northern Syria, launched an offensive in the central province of Hama and endured weeks of bombardment by Assad's forces trying to dislodge them from Damascus's outer neighborhoods. 

Syria's political opposition has also won widespread international recognition. But Assad has continued to rely on support from Russia, China and Iran to hold firm and has used his air power to blunt rebel gains on the ground. 

Missile batteries 
Despite the estimated death toll of 60,000 announced by the United Nations earlier this week -- a figure sharply higher than that given by activists -- the West has shown little appetite for intervening against Assad in the way that NATO forces supported rebels who overthrew Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

But NATO is sending U.S. and European Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to the Turkish-Syrian border. 

Channel Four Europe's Alex Thomson has the rare opportunity to meet some of Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops.

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The United States military said U.S. troops and equipment had begun arriving in Turkey on Friday for the deployment. Germany and the Netherlands are also sending Patriot batteries, which will take weeks to deploy fully. 

Turkey and NATO say the missiles are a safeguard to protect southern Turkey from possible Syrian missile strikes. Syria and allies Russia and Iran say the deployments could spark an eventual military action by the Western alliance. 

Syria's war has proved the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts that arose out of popular uprisings in Arab countries over the past two years and led to the downfall of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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