Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday warned the West that any foreign intervention on the pretext of promoting democracy would cause an “earthquake'' in the region and create “tens of Afghanistans''.

His remarks came amid growing Western pressure over allegations of state-sponsored violence against pro-reforms campaigners.

Referring to attempts by Western powers to “ratchet up the pressure'', President Assad drew a distinction with other countries caught up in the “Arab spring'' and said: “Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”

In an interview to the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, his first to a British newspaper since unrest erupted earlier this year, he said: “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 … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?''

Describing the unrest as a “struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism [secularism]”, he acknowledged that “many mistakes” had been made by his forces in the early part of the uprising but insisted that only “terrorists” were now being targeted.

“We have very few police, only the Army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda,” he said. “If you sent in your Army to the streets, the same thing would happen. Now, we are only fighting terrorists. That's why the fighting is becoming much less.”

Mr. Assad denied criticism on the pace of reforms. “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 … It's a very complicated society.” He said he had responded differently to the “Arab Spring'' than other deposed leaders.

“We didn't go down the road of stubborn government,” he said. “Six days after [the protests began] I commenced reform. People were sceptical that the reforms were an opiate for the people, but when we started announcing the reforms, the problems started decreasing… This is when the tide started to turn. This is when people started supporting the government.”

The interviewer Andrew Gilligan wrote that in interviews in Damascus secular Syrians and members of the substantial Christian and Alawite minorities said they supported the Assad regime for fear of their positions under a new government.

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