The Middle Eastern country’s strongman leader rejects any power-sharing deal with the opposition.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said there is a “significant” chance he will seek a new term and ruled out sharing power with the opposition seeking his ouster, in an exclusive interview with AFP before the Geneva-II peace talks.
Speaking on Sunday at his presidential palace in Damascus, Assad said he expected Syria’s war to grind on. And he called for the talks scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Montreux in Switzerland to focus on what he termed his “war against terrorism.”
“I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand,” he said of presidential elections in June. If there is “public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election,” he added. “In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant.”
Assad appeared at ease, wearing a navy blue suit and smiling regularly throughout the 45-minute interview. He spoke from the plush surroundings of the Palace of the People on a Damascus hillside, but said he neither lives nor works in the building, finding it too large, preferring his office or home.
Assad, 48, came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who ruled for nearly 30 years. He was elected in a referendum after his father’s death and won another seven-year term in July 2007.
Assad dismissed the opposition, which says it will attend the peace talks, as having been “created” by foreign backers. “It is clear to everyone that some of the groups which might attend the conference didn’t exist until very recently,” he said. “They were created during the crisis by foreign intelligence agencies whether in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States or other countries,” he said. “When we sit down with these groups, we are in fact negotiating with those countries,” Assad said.
Opposition representation in government would mean “the participation of each of those states in the Syrian government,” he added. He also mocked the Syrian opposition leaders, who are based abroad. “Last year, they claimed that they had control of 70 percent of Syria, yet they didn’t even dare to come to the areas that they had supposed control of,” he said. They “come to the border for a 30-minute photo opportunity and then they flee. How can they be ministers in the government?” he asked, adding: “These propositions are totally unrealistic, but they do make a good joke!”
The peace talks are meant to build on the Geneva-I accord, which called for a transitional government but made no mention of Assad’s departure. The discussions are backed by both the United States, which supports the rebels, and Russia, a staunch Assad ally.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, with peaceful protests that spiraled into an armed uprising after a brutal regime crackdown. Assad said his forces were “making progress.”
“This doesn’t mean that victory is near at hand; these kinds of battles are complicated, difficult and they need a lot of time. But when you’re defending your country, it’s obvious that the only choice is to win,” added Assad, who deems all those who oppose his regime “terrorists.”
“This battle is not … as Western propaganda portrays, a popular uprising against a regime suppressing its people and a revolution calling for democracy and freedom,” he said. “A popular revolution doesn’t last for three years only to fail. Moreover, a national revolution cannot have a foreign agenda.”
Assad warned of the consequences if his government lost the war. “Should Syria lose this battle, that would mean the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East,” he said. He also rejected any distinction between the rebels and radical jihadists, despite a recent backlash by the armed opposition against the Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “Regardless of the labels you read in the Western media, we are now fighting one extremist terrorist group comprising various factions,” he said. Assad said this should be the primary focus of the peace talks.
“The Geneva conference should produce clear results with regard to the fight against terrorism in Syria,” he said. “This is the most important decision or result that the Geneva conference could produce. Any political solution that is reached without fighting terrorism has no value.”
Assad also said localized ceasefires, which have happened in areas around the capital, could “be more important than Geneva.” And he insisted that he had not considered leaving Damascus, where he lives with his wife Asma and their three children. “Fleeing is not an option in these circumstances. I must be at the forefront of those defending this country and this has been the case from day one.”
Despite reports of war crimes by both Syrian forces and rebels, Assad said his troops had never massacred civilians. “These organizations do not have a single document to prove that the Syrian government has committed a massacre against civilians anywhere,” he said, accusing rebels of “killing civilians everywhere.” According to Assad: “The army does not shell neighborhoods. The army strikes areas where there are terrorists.” But, he added, “there is no such thing as a clean war in which there are no innocent civilian victims.”
Assad defended the role of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, whose fighters are battling alongside his troops, noting that combatants from around the world had joined the opposition. But he said the withdrawal of all foreign fighters was “one element of the solution in Syria.”
Despite his diplomatic isolation, Assad confirmed that Western intelligence agencies had reached out to his government on the issue of counter-terrorism. “There have been meetings with several intelligence agencies from a number of countries,” he said. But he added that Syria rejected security or political cooperation with countries that have “anti-Syrian policies.” In particular, he accused France of becoming a “proxy state” for Qatar and Saudi Arabia. All three are key rebel backers.
He also said many aspects of his life were unchanged. “I go to work as usual, and we live in the same house as before.” But Assad added that his children, like other Syrian children, asked difficult questions. “Why are there such evil people? Why are there victims? It’s not easy to explain these things to children,” he said.