Syria’s Assad pledges to attend proposed peace talks, says his side is winning war

Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed in an interview broadcast Thursday that his government is winning the country’s civil war and pledged that he would personally attend proposed peace talks in Geneva tentatively set for later this summer.

“We will go to Geneva as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” Assad said in an interview that was broadcast on a Lebanese television station.

His statement contrasted with the likelihood that Syrian rebels would decline to attend the talks, which are being sponsored by the United States and Russia.

Assad also predicted that his country would receive a shipment of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles, but he declined to comment specifically on when they might arrive. “All of our agreements with Russia will be implemented,” he said.

Assad’s comments came in a lengthy pre-recorded interview with al Manar television, the broadcast outlet of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which has recently assumed an increasingly important role in Assad’s fight against rebel forces. Hezbollah has taken a leading role in a government push to recapture Qusayr, a strategic town near the Lebanese border. Last weekend, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, told his followers that Hezbollah would fight in Syria until Assad’s survival was assured.

Assad, however, discounted the importance of Hezbollah’s presence in Syria, saying the number of fighters the Lebanese group had sent to his country was a “drop in the ocean” compared with the “hundreds of thousands” of Syrian government troops fighting on his behalf.

“Logically speaking, if Hezbollah . . . wanted to defend Syria by sending fighters, how many could they send – a few hundred, a thousand or two?” he said. “We are talking about a battle in which hundreds of thousands of Syrian troops are involved against tens of thousands of terrorists.”

In his wide-ranging interview, given in the presidential palace in Damascus, Assad also sought to link the armed rebellion against his rule to Israel’s efforts to undermine Arab opposition to its existence, said that opponents who want him to step aside should seek to reform the country’s constitution first, and credited his military’s recent advances against the rebels to Syrians who’d once sided with the opposition and are now supporting the government.

“There was support in some regions for the militants, and I assure you that was not the result of a lack in patriotism, but a lack of awareness,” Assad said. “There are many stories about individuals who submitted to terrorist groups thinking it was a revolution. . . . This support shifted and many militants left these groups and went back to their normal lives; this is the basic reason.”

He also suggested that he might seek re-election next year when his current term expires.

“It is still too early to discuss this,” he said. “When the time comes, and I feel, through my meetings and interactions with the Syrian people, that there is a need and public desire for me to nominate myself, I will not hesitate.”

He also took a slap at Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey who have been meeting for the past week to sort out whether to add members to their coalition and to decide on new leaders and a government-in-exile. On Thursday, the Supreme Military Council, which is backed by countries supporting the Syrian opposition with weapons and non-lethal aid, denounced the inability of the Syrian Opposition Coalition to reach a decision and demanded that it be given 50 percent of the seats in a new coalition.

“Whom do they represent?” Assad asked.

Assad’s refusal to discuss whether his country has received S-300 anti-aircraft missiles did not stop Israeli officials from speculating about their use and when they might be delivered.

The officials said they had no indications that the anti-aircraft system had reached Syria and that even if the Russian government were to speed delivery, it would take "weeks, maybe more then a month," for the complicated system to reach Syria.

"This isn’t something that it airlifted in over night. This is something that moves slowly, over international waters, until it reaches a Syrian port," one Israeli defense official said under the condition of anonymity because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has banned his government from discussing the subject. "This is a sophisticated system that you can’t sneak around or hide."

Syria’s 2-year-old civil war has left more than 90,000 dead, according to one human rights group, and displaced millions. Despite early predictions that Assad’s government would fall quickly, he has capitalized on fears that the rebels fighting the government would usher in a more repressive government than his own, and one that would not protect minority rights. Radical religious rebel groups, some of which have taken over strategic infrastructure and large amounts of territory, have contributed to those fears.

McClatchy special correspondent Sheera Frenkel contributed to this report from Majdal Shams, Golan Heights.