Al-Assad insists he will not step down and ‘flee’

Reuters and AFP, DAMASCUS and Lima

Mon, May 20, 2013 - Page 6

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insisted he will not resign before the end of his mandate next year.

“To resign would be to flee,” al-Assad said in an interview with Argentine newspaper Clarin and Argentine news agency Telam when asked if he would consider stepping aside as called for by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I don’t know if Kerry or anyone else has received the power of the Syrian people to talk in their name about who should go and who should stay. That will be determined by the Syrian people in the 2014 presidential elections,” he added.

He nevertheless said he welcome a US-Russian peace initiative to end Syria’s two-year civil war.

The US and Russia are trying to convene a peace conference in Geneva, Switzerland, that would bring together members of the Syrian regime and the rebels fighting to oust al-Assad.

“We have received the Russian-US approach well and we hope that there will be an international conference to help Syrians overcome the crisis,” Clarin quoted al-Assad as saying.

However, he added that: “We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria and we don’t think that the forces that support the terrorists want a solution to the crisis.”

Also, proposed peace talks for Syria would not curb “terrorism” in the country and it is unrealistic to think they would succeed, he said.

Syria calls the rebels who have been fighting to overthrow the regime “terrorists.”

“There is confusion in the world between a political solution and terrorism. They think a political conference will halt terrorists in the country. That is unrealistic,” al-Assad said in reference to insurgent groups seeking to unseat him.

The rebels demanding al-Assad resign have also voiced skepticism about the proposed peace talks.

Al-Assad stressed that peace talks would not make sense because the opposition was too fragmented to negotiate an agreement.

“No dialogue with terrorists,” he said.

On Friday, the outlook for talks appeared to hit snags.

The US chided Russia for sending missiles to the Syrian government, while France made clear it would oppose any meeting if al-Assad’s ally Iran were invited.

In the interview, al-Assad spoke at length and also denied that his government has used chemical weapons against civilians.

“The accusations against Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons or my resignation change every day, and it is likely that this is used as a prelude to a war against our country,” he said.

The use of chemical weapons “would mean the death of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Who could hide something like that?” Telam quoted him as saying.

He nevertheless acknowledged that “thousands of Syrians have died” since the conflict broke out in March 2011.

Al-Assad also said he has no information on James Foley and Domenico Quirico, two journalists who are missing in Syria.

The Syrian president was asked specifically about the fate of Foley, a US citizen and freelance journalist, and Quirico, a veteran reporter for Italian daily La Stampa.

However, the transcript of the interview published by Syrian state news agency SANA made no mention of the reporters’ names, transcribing the question as asking about a reporter of “Italian nationality” and another who “was reported missing after he entered six months ago.”