Assad Suggests Peace Talks Would Fail Because West Wants to Prolong War
By Anne Barnard, NY Times, May 18, 2013
BEIRUT, Lebanon—President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in a rare interview with a foreign newspaper, appeared to dismiss the possibility of serious progress arising from any peace talks, and to back away from earlier statements by Syrian officials that the government was willing to negotiate with its armed opponents.
"We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria," Mr. Assad told Argentina’s Clarín newspaper in an interview published online on Saturday, blaming those countries for supporting "terrorists" fighting his government.
"We support and applaud the efforts, but we must be realistic," he said, referring to efforts by the United States and Russia to broker talks they hope will be held in June. "There cannot be a unilateral solution in Syria; two parties are needed at least."
Mr. Assad took a hard line throughout the interview. He accused Israel of directly aiding rebels by providing information on sites to attack, refused to acknowledge any mistakes in his handling of the two-year-old crisis, and disputed United Nations estimates that more than 80,000 people had died in the conflict.
All those contentions are likely to fuel what is already widespread pessimism about the potential talks. It is unclear who will talk to whom, and about what. The opposition in exile remains unable to unify fragmented rebel groups behind its political leadership, even those that nominally fall under the umbrella of the opposition’s Free Syrian Army, let alone the growing cadres of extremist Islamist fighters who openly reject the opposition leadership.
Mr. Assad’s supporters have long contended that his wide array of foreign foes, including the United States, Israel and Sunni-led Persian Gulf states, benefit less from a resolution than from a prolonged Syrian conflict that weakens Mr. Assad and his allies, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group. That view is increasingly shared by some rebel leaders, increasingly frustrated with the West’s unwillingness to give them untrammeled support.
"We are willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk, without exceptions," Mr. Assad said. "But that does not include terrorists; no state talks to terrorists. When they put down their arms and join the dialogue, then we will have no objections. Believing that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground is unreal."
Mr. Assad appeared to be backing off previous overtures by members of his government. On Feb. 25, Ali Haidar, the minister for national reconciliation, told Syria’s Parliament that the government was ready to meet with armed opposition groups.
"We, the government, and me, personally, will meet, without exceptions, with Syrian opposition groups inside and outside" the country, he said. "The president of the country has said that we will try with everyone that is against us politically. And even those who use arms—we must try with them." However, Mr. Haidar is not part of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, so the weight of the statement was never clear.