Assad Says Syria Troops Advancing Thanks To Russia
Syrian government troops are advancing on "nearly every front" thanks to Russian air strikes that began in September, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview released Sunday.
The embattled president also said he favoured new peace talks to be hosted in Moscow, but stressed that the Syrian conflict could not be resolved without "defeating terrorism".
In the interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix television, Assad said the situation in Syria had "improved in a very good way" since Russia began air strikes on September 30.
"Now I can say that the army is making advancement in nearly every front... in many different directions and areas on the Syrian ground," he said, speaking in English.
Russia is coordinating its air strikes with Damascus, unlike the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, which Assad and his government criticise as ineffectual.
The army has made minimal progress on the ground, according to groups monitoring the war, though the Russian strikes have reportedly boosted morale among government troops and supporters.
Moscow has also sought a leading role in a political resolution to the conflict, participating recently in high-level talks in Vienna with other world powers in a bid to create a framework for peace.
Talks there earlier this month produced a framework for the creation of a transitional government, a new constitution and elections within 18 months.
But there was no agreement on the fate of Assad, whom the opposition and their backers want gone, but allies such as Iran and Russia say should be allowed to run in new elections if he wants.
- 'Defeating terrorism' -
Assad said it was "my right" to run in new elections but it was "too early" to say if he intended to.
"(It) depends on how my feeling is regarding the Syrian people. I mean, do they want me or not?"
"You cannot talk about something that's going to happen maybe in the next few years," he said.
Assad said he backed Moscow's efforts to organise new dialogue between the regime and opposition in a "Moscow 3" conference, but insisted a political solution could only be achieved with the defeat of "terrorism".
"We need to make the dialogue, but the concrete steps should follow at least a major defeat of the terrorists and the government takes control of a major area that has been captured by the terrorists," he said.
The Syrian leader said it would take "maximum of two years" to produce a new constitution and hold a referendum on it.
Assad's government considers all those who oppose his regime "terrorists," and has framed the conflict that began with anti-government demonstrations in March 2011 as a "war on terror".
He accuses the West and other backers of the opposition of sponsoring extremism, and said the West had exploited a photograph of a young Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdi, found dead on a Turkish beach.
"That photo was used as propaganda by the West," he said, accusing opposition backers of driving Syrians abroad by sponsoring "terrorism" and levying sanctions on Syria.
"This boy and... other children suffered and died and are being killed because of the Western policies in this world, in this region," he said.