Assad: Peace talks will fail
By ANNE BARNARD
THE NEW YORK TIMES | May 19,2013
BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad of Syria, in a rare interview with a foreign newspaper, appeared to dismiss the possibility of serious progress arising from peace talks planned for next month, and to back away from earlier statements by Syrian officials that the government was willing to negotiate with its armed opponents.
“We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria,” Assad told Argentina’s Clarin newspaper in an interview published online Saturday, blaming those countries for supporting “terrorists” fighting his government.
“We support and applaud the efforts but we must be realistic,” he said, referring to efforts by the United States and Russia to broker talks in June. “There cannot be a unilateral solution in Syria; two parties are needed at least.”
Assad took a hard line throughout the interview, according to a transcript in English provided to The New York Times. He declared that he would run for election as scheduled in 2014 and would accept election monitors only from friendly countries like Russia and China.
He also accused Israel of directly aiding rebels by providing intelligence on sites to attack, refused to acknowledge any mistakes in his handling of the 2-year-old crisis, and disputed U.N. estimates that more than 80,000 people had died in the conflict.
All those contentions are likely to fuel what is already widespread pessimism about the potential talks. It is unclear who will talk to whom, and what about. The opposition in exile remains unable to unify fragmented rebel groups behind its political leadership, even those that nominally fall under the umbrella of the opposition’s Free Syrian Army, let alone the growing cadres of extremist Islamist fighters who openly reject the opposition leadership and are a source of increasing concern in the West.
Assad’s supporters have long contended that his wide array of foreign foes, including the United States, Israel and Sunni-led Persian Gulf states, benefit less from a resolution than from a prolonged Syrian conflict that weakens Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group. That view is increasingly shared by some rebel leaders, increasingly frustrated with the West’s unwillingness to give them untrammeled support.
In meetings with his supporters ahead of the talks, Assad has projected confidence, suggesting that the United States would accept his remaining in power if U.S. officials believed that he was militarily strong and could curb jihadists. He told a group of Lebanese politicians visiting Damascus, the capital, this month that his forces were carrying out offensives to retake rebel-held territory in Homs province and the suburbs of Damascus to increase his leverage at the talks.
“The battlefield will decide who is strong when they enter negotiations,” he said, according to one of the visitors, Abdelrahim Mourad, a former Parliament member whose party is allied with Hezbollah. “America is pragmatic. If they found out they were defeated and the regime is the winner, the Americans will deal with the facts.”
Whether that view is realistic or not, Assad’s opponents inside and outside Syria widely doubt that he is willing to make meaningful concessions — doubts he reinforced in the interview, refusing to recognize any element of the armed opposition as representing legitimate Syrian demands or even to talk to the rebels unless they disarm.
“We are willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk, without exceptions,” he said. “But that does not include terrorists; no state talks to terrorists. When they put down their arms and join the dialogue then we will have no objections. Believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unreal.”
Assad also elaborated on his government’s contention that the opposition was aligned with Syria’s longtime foe, Israel, which has bombed Syrian territory three times this year in attacks believed to target weapons being delivered to Hezbollah.
“Israel is directly supporting the terrorist groups in two ways,” he said. “Firstly it gives them logistical support” — a possible reference to medical aid Israel has given to Syrians wounded near the Syria-Israel border — “and it also tells them what sites to attack and how to attack them.”
Assad said that rebels had attacked a radar station instrumental to Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses against Israel, giving no further details.
Assad said international monitoring of the 2014 elections would violate Syria’s sovereignty. “We do not trust the West for this task,” he said, proposing observers from “friendly countries such as Russia or China.”
“China?” the interviewer asked, presumably perplexed because China is not known for holding free elections. Assad was silent.
The reporter then asked if Assad had any “self-criticisms.”
He replied: “It’s illogical to carry out self-criticism before the events have been completed. If you go to watch a film you don’t criticize it until it ends.”
He dismissed rebels’ accusations that his forces had used chemical weapons, noting that such weapons “would mean killing thousands or tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Who could hide something like that?”
He disputed estimates of the toll in the war, saying that it was unclear how many of the dead were Syrians and that “the terrorists often kill and bury their victims in mass graves” — an allegation that his opponents have leveled at his forces. Though foreign jihadists take part in the Syrian conflict, most fighters are Syrians.