Syria's Assad 'confident in victory' in civil war
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Thursday that he is "confident in victory" in his country's civil war, and he warned that Damascus would retaliate for any future Israeli airstrike on his territory.
Assad also told the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts recently, but he was vague on whether this included advanced S-300 air defense systems.
The comments were in line with a forceful and confident message the regime has been sending in recent days, even as the international community attempts to launch a peace conference in Geneva, possibly next month. The strong tone coincided with recent military victories in battles with armed rebels trying to topple him.
The interview was broadcast as Syria's main political opposition group appeared to fall into growing disarray.
The international community had hoped the two sides would start talks on a political transition. However, the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said earlier Thursday that it would not attend a conference, linking the decision to a regime offensive on the western Syrian town of Qusair and claiming that hundreds of wounded people were trapped there.
Assad, who appeared animated and gestured frequently in the TV interview, said he has been confident from the start of the conflict more than two years ago that he would be able to defeat his opponents.
"Regarding my confidence about victory, had we not had this confidence, we wouldn't have been able to fight in this battle for two years, facing an international attack," he said. Assad portrayed the battle to unseat him as a "world war against Syria and the resistance" — a reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah, a close ally.
"We are confident and sure about victory, and I confirm that Syria will stay as it was," he said, "but even more than before, in supporting resistance fighters in all the Arab world."
Assad has said he would stay in power at least until elections scheduled in 2014, but he went further in the interview, saying he "will not hesitate to run again" if the Syrian people want him to do so.
Taking a tough line, he also warned that Syria would strike back hard against any future Israeli airstrike.
Earlier this month, Israel had struck near Damascus, targeting suspected shipments of advanced weapons purportedly intended for Hezbollah. Syria did not respond at the time.
Assad said he has informed other countries that Syria would respond next time. "If we are going to retaliate against Israel, this retaliation should be a strategic response," he said.
Russia's S-300 missiles would significantly boost Syria's air defenses and are seen as a game-changer, but Assad was unclear whether Syria has received a first shipment.
Earlier Thursday, Al-Manar had sent text messages to reporters with what it said was an excerpt from the interview.
The station quoted Assad as saying Syria had received a first shipment of such missiles. The Associated Press called Al-Manar after receiving the text message, and an official at the station said the message had been sent based on Assad's comments.
In the interview, Assad was asked about the S-300s, but his answer was general.
He said Russia's weapons shipments are not linked to the Syrian conflict. "We have been negotiating with them about different types of weapons for years, and Russia is committed to Syria to implement these contracts," he said.
"All we have agreed on with Russia will be implemented and some of it has been implemented recently, and we and the Russians continue to implement these contracts," he said.
Earlier this week, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel considered the S-300s in Syrian hands a threat and signaled it was prepared to use force to stop delivery. Israel had no comment Thursday.
The S-300s have a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and can track and strike multiple targets at once. Syria already possesses Russian-made air defenses.
The U.S. and Israel had urged Russia to cancel the sale, but Russia rejected the appeals.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week that the U.S. is concerned about Moscow's continued financial and military support for the Assad regime, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Meanwhile, Assad dismissed Syria's political opposition as foreign-directed exiles who don't represent the people of Syria.
The Syrian National Coalition has been meeting for more than a week in Istanbul to expand its membership, elect new leaders and devise a strategy for possible peace talks.
Coalition members got bogged down in personnel issues for much of the time. On Thursday, they announced that under current circumstances, they will not attend peace talks.
In the interview, Assad reiterated that the Syrian government is ready to attend in principle, though he said any agreement reached there would have to be put to a referendum.
"We will go to this conference as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Whom do they represent?" he said of the opposition.
"We know that we are going to negotiate with the countries that stand behind it (the opposition) and not to negotiate with them. When we speak with the slave, we are indirectly negotiating with the master," he added.
The coalition's decision not to attend the talks could torpedo the only peace plan the international community has been able to rally behind, although prospects for its success appeared doubtful from the start.
Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said she hoped it was not the coalition's final word on the Geneva conference. She said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is in Istanbul trying to help the opposition sort through its internal problems. Once members have decided on issues such as expanded membership and leadership, the U.S. hopes they will recommit to peace talks, Psaki said.
Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused the coalition of trying to set preconditions, by demanding that Assad's departure from office must be the focus of any peace talks. He called such a demand "unrealistic."
He urged the U.S. and Europe to "restrain those who are encouraging such unacceptable and aggressive approaches on the part of the National Coalition."
If the diplomatic option is now off the table, following the opposition's decision, the West, including the U.S., will have to come up with a new approach. President Barack Obama could face renewed pressure to help the rebels militarily.
The opposition linked its decision to stay away from the conference to an ongoing battle for the strategic town of Qusair and the role of Hezbollah in helping Assad.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah is heavily involved in the 12-day-old push to drive rebels from the town. Coalition officials said Thursday that hundreds of peopled wounded in the fighting were trapped in the town.
"The talk about the international conference and a political solution to the situation in Syria has no meaning in light of the massacres that are taking place," coalition spokesman Khalid Saleh told reporters. He said the group will not support any international peace efforts in light of the "invasion" of Syria by Iran and Hezbollah.
Both sides value Qusair, which lies along a land corridor linking two of Assad's strongholds — Damascus and an area along the Mediterranean coast. For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (6 miles) away.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-month-old Syrian conflict that has had increasingly sectarian overtones. Members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority dominate the rebel ranks and Assad's regime is mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut and Bradley S. Klapper in Washington contributed to this story.