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SYRIA

Bashar al-Assad sees no reason not to stand again for the Syrian presidency

On the eve of Geneva talks, president says he wants their focus to be on 'war against terrorism'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 11:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 1:06am
 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says there is a "significant" chance he will seek a new term, and has ruled out sharing power with the opposition seeking to topple him.

Speaking on Sunday at the presidential palace in Damascus in the lead-up to talks in Geneva, Assad said he expected the war to grind on.

And he called for the talks, scheduled to begin tomorrow, 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 favour 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 spoke from the plush surroundings of the Palace of the People on a Damascus hillside, but said he neither lived nor worked 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 has said it would 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."

Opposition representation in government would mean "the participation of each of those states in the Syrian government," he added.

He mocked opposition leaders, who were based abroad.

"Last year, they claimed that they had control of 70 per cent 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 first Geneva accord, which called for a transitional government but made no mention of Assad's departure. They are backed by both the US, which supports the rebels, and Russia, a staunch Assad ally.

The conflict began in March 2011, with peaceful protests that spiralled after a brutal regime crackdown.

"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.

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 rejected any distinction between the rebels and radical jihadists, despite a recent backlash by the 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.

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