Assad expects to run again, rejects power deal, mocks opposition

AFP-JIJI

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 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, 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.”

“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 answered the first three questions on camera, and an AFP photographer was able to take pictures.

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.”

“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 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?”

“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 spiralled 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 rejected any distinction between the rebels and radical jihadists, despite a recent backlash by the armed opposition against the al-Qaida-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.