Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he would keep fighting during peace talks: report

Beirut: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would keep "fighting terrorism" while peace talks took place and saw a risk of Saudi and Turkish intervention in the Syrian conflict, according to an interview with news agency AFP published on Friday.

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In the interview, Mr Assad said he intended to carry on fighting until he had returned the entire country to his control and the "political" and "military" tracks to end the war were separate, meaning he would keep up his attempts to win the war even if peace talks went ahead.

"We have fully believed in negotiations and political action," he told the French news agency AFP. "However, if we negotiate, it does not mean we stop fighting terrorism."

He said he could retake all the territory he had lost in less than a year if supply lines to the rebels from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan were cut, but otherwise "the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price".

He added: "It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part."


The interview, which AFP said was Mr Assad's first in about two months, took place in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Thursday before the conclusion of talks in Munich where major powers agreed to a ceasefire in Syria to begin in a week.

There was no response to his words from his Russian backers.

Russia has been bombarding north and west Syria in support of a regime advance against the rebels. Under their cover, pro-regime forces, many of them Shiite militias recruited from as far afield as Afghanistan, have cut off Aleppo from the northern border with Turkey.

Russia and the US had claimed a ceasefire would give space for the rebels to come to the negotiating table with the Assad regime. The Russians demanded it start on March 1, but the Americans wanted an immediate cessation of hostilities to stop further advances. The compromise was hammered out on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich.

The participants, who did not include any Syrians, also proposed a deal to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to besieged areas. There was immediate scepticism as to whether the ceasefire had any chance of success.

It excludes Islamic State and the local al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, on the grounds that they are UN-designated terrorists. This means that in effect the Russian bombing campaign can continue, since it says it is targeting these factions.

The opposition's negotiating team, the High Negotiating Committee, reacted cautiously. It has been put under pressure by the US and other backers to agree to full peace talks in Geneva. The HNC spokesman, Salem Meslet, said: "We must see action on the ground and if we see action and implementation we will see you soon in Geneva."

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond who met the leader of the HNC, Riyad Hijab, for talks this week, said the ball was in Russia and Mr Assad's court. "It will only succeed if there is a major change of behaviour by the Syrian regime and its supporters," he said.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon added: "There is no reason why Russia cannot implement it [a ceasefire] immediately and stop the bombing." He said he feared Aleppo would be "the next Sarajevo".

One Syrian refugee from Aleppo, waiting to take a boat to Europe from the Turkish city of Izmir, was more blunt. "The regime is playing a trick on the international community," said Ibrahim, a man in his 20s. "They say they will only keep on fighting the terrorists, but they call all of us terrorists.

"Russia won't really stop. If they stopped bombing tomorrow, the regime would fall."

Mr Assad said in the interview he was "not concerned" about allegations by the UN this week that his regime had engaged in a program of "extermination" of political prisoners.

Mr Assad also said that the purpose of the battle for Aleppo was to cut the route north to Turkey.

Over the past two weeks, the Russian-backed Syrian army offensive has succeeded in cutting off the main supply route from rebel held areas of Aleppo to the Turkish border.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey back rebel forces fighting in the five-year-old Syrian conflict. 

The Telegraph London, Reuters

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