Syria's al-Assad: Losing war means 'chaos' across Mideast

Syria's al-Assad: Losing war means 'chaos' across Mideast

DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
Syrias al-Assad: Losing war means chaos across Mideast

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP in at the presidential palace in Damascus on the weekend. AFP photo

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in an exclusive interview with AFP, warned ahead this week's crucial peace talks in Switzerland that if his government loses the country's war it would mean "chaos throughout the Middle East."

"Should Syria lose this battle, that would mean the spread of chaos throughout the Middle East," he said in an interview on Jan. 19.

Speaking at the presidential palace in Damascus, days before the beginning of the Geneva II peace talks, al-Assad said he expected his country's bloody conflict to drag on, calling it a "fight against terrorism" and rejecting any distinction between opposition fighters and radical jihadists.

He also said there is a "significant" chance he will seek a new term this year, and dismissed the prospect of an opposition premier.

"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," al-Assad said.

If "there is public desire and a 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," added al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000.

Opposition government a 'joke'

He dismissed the opposition, which has said it will go to the Geneva talks with the primary objective of forcing him from office, as having been "created" by foreign backers.

And he described the possibility of appointing key opposition figures to the post of prime minister as nothing more than "a good joke."

They "come to the border for a 30-minute photo opportunity and then they flee," he said. "How can they be ministers in the government?" "These propositions are totally unrealistic, but they do make a good joke!" The Syrian leader said he expected the country's conflict to grind on, although he said his forces were making progress.

The conflict, which began in March 2011, has cost more than 130,000 lives according to estimates from one NGO, and has displaced millions of Syrians.

"What we can say is that we are making progress and moving forward. This doesn't mean that victory is near at hand; these kinds of battles are complicated, difficult and they need a lot of time," he said.

Despite reports of war crimes by both Syrian forces and rebels, Assad said his troops had never massacred civilians.

"These organisations do not have a single document to prove that the Syrian government has committed a massacre against civilians anywhere," he said, accusing rebels of "killing civilians everywhere."

"The army does not shell neighbourhoods. The army strikes areas where there are terrorists." But, he added, "there is no such thing as a clean war in which there are no innocent civilian victims."

'War on terror' must be goal of Geneva II

Al-Assad said peace talks starting Jan. 22 in the Swiss towns of Montreux and Geneva should focus on his "war on terrorism", despite the opposition's insistence the talks would lead to his departure from office.

"The Geneva conference should produce clear results with regard to the fight against terrorism in Syria," he said.

"This is the most important decision or result that the Geneva conference could produce. Any political solution that is reached without fighting terrorism has no value." Al-Assad also said localised ceasefires, which have happened in areas around the capital, could "be more important than Geneva."

Fleeing 'not an option'

Al-Assad he insisted that he had not considered leaving Damascus, where he lives with his wife Asma and their three children.

"Fleeing is not an option in these circumstances. I must be at the forefront of those defending this country and this has been the case from day one." 

He also said that he finds it hard to explain the conflict to his children.

He said he neither lived nor worked in the vast palace, finding it too large, and preferred to be at his office elsewhere in town, or at home.

"There are a few things that haven't changed," he said, when asked how the brutal conflict has changed his daily life.

"I go to work as usual and we live in the same house as before, and the children go to school. These things haven't changed," he said.

But he acknowledged that the war had intruded on his family's life in some ways, adding that "children are affected more deeply than adults in these circumstances."

"There are questions put to you by children about the causes of what's happening, that you don't usually deal with in normal circumstances," said al-Assad, a father of three.

"Why are there such evil people? Why are there victims? It's not easy to explain these things to children, but they remain persistent daily questions and a subject of discussion in every family, including my own."

He said the war, which has killed more than 130,000 people according to one NGO's tally, had forced children to "grow up too early and mature much faster".