PHOTO: President Assad with an interviewer from Italy’s RAI TV



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Transcript: Assad Interview — “Between Damascus and Iraq, There is Only Empty Space”

Bashar al-Assad has pushed aside the idea of Presidential elections in Syria — even though they are being promoted by his allies Russia and Iran — telling Italian State TV that there is “no point in deciding any timetable” before “terrorism” is defeated.

Moscow was able to obtain agreement at an international conference in Vienna last week to an 18-month process, beginning with cease-fires and talks between the regime and opposition groups. After a new Constitution was confirmed, Presidential and Parliamentary elections would be held. Significantly, Russia and Iran prevented any reference to Assad’s departure during the process.

However, the President was still evasive when asked about the arrangements:

You cannot achieve anything politically while you have the terrorists taking over many areas in Syria, and they’re going to be – they are already they main obstacle of any real political advancement. If we talk after that, one year and a half to two years is enough for any transition. It’s enough. I mean if you want to talk about first of all having a new constitution, then referendum, then parliamentarian elections, then any kind of other procedure, whether presidential or any other thing, doesn’t matter.

He then offered the concession, “It won’t take more than two years.”

Assad indicated that the international community could not force him to accept any plans: “The presidential — if the Syrians, in their dialogue, they wanted to have presidential elections, there’s nothing called a red line, for example, regarding this. But it’s not my decision. It should be about what the consensus is among the Syrians.”

The President also rejected any commitment to hold talks with the Syrian opposition, indicating that the discussions would have to take place after elections:

You don’t accept any opposition that are holding machine guns in your country. That’s the case in every other country. Whoever holds a machine gun and terrorizes people and destroys private or public properties or kills innocents and whoever is a terrorist, he’s not opposition. Opposition is a political term. Opposition could be defined not through your own opinion; it could be defined only through the elections, through the ballot box.

I mean, ask the Syrians who they consider opposition. If they elect them, they are the real opposition. So that’s why I said we can define, we can give definition to this after the elections.

Challenged that he was no longer in control of most of Syria — given that more than 80% of territory is held by other groups — Assad replied that rebels, Kurds, and the Islamic State occupied areas with no people:

50 or 60% of Syria is empty ground, where you don’t have anyone, so they put it under the control of the terrorists, while it’s empty, fully empty….

After Damascus toward Iraq, it’s empty space, it’s empty area, so you cannot talk about its control.

He blamed the loss of borders to “the governments that supported the terrorists like the Turkish government first of all, and the Jordanian government”.

Assad asserted that “some American officials…including Hillary Clinton [said] Al Qa’eda was created by the Americans with the help of Saudi Wahabi money and ideology”, and he also blamed the US for the rise of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

As for his own responsibility for the deaths, destruction, and displaced Syrians since March 2011, Assad replied, “The only thing that we did since the beginning of the crisis is fighting terrorism and supporting dialogue. What else can we do?”

Russia: “Opposition Leader” Says Assad Fate Up to Syrians

Russian media are hailing a Syrian “opposition leader” who is saying that President Assad’s future should be decided by the Syrian people, rather than international discussions.

Bassam Bitar, identified as “deputy head of the opposition Movement for Pluralistic Society”, reportedly said in a Moscow press conference: “The international community is unlikely to support the nomination of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for another term, but in any case it is up to the Syrian people to decide on this.”

Bitar said the decision on a “government of national accord” should be made, and then the Syrian people should be decide their leader.

Bitar served in the Syrian Embassy in Paris from 1979 to 1986 but was dismissed for criticism of the Hafez al-Assad regime. He later moved to Virginia in the US.

Itar TASS also quoted Randa Kassis, the founder of the Movement, as saying that Russia, the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have submitted lists of the “opposition” to meet regime officials in talks.

Kassis was a member of the externally-based opposition Syrian National Council until 2012.

Regime Attacks on Damascus Suburb of Douma, Including Cluster Bombs, Prevent Possible Cease-Fire

Pro-opposition journalist Abdurahman Harkoush reports more shelling of the Damascus suburb of Douma on Thursday:

Reports had circulated on Wednesday of discussions of a cease-fire in the suburb, where the leading rebel faction Jaish al-Islam is based.

Russia reportedly presented rebels with a 15-day ceasefire to begin Thursday, but the Syrian military carried out a dozen airstrikes as well as firing shells and mortars, while attempting to storm the town on the ground.

Six people were killed, including Douma’s only remaining coroner, and 75 wounded, according to the Unified Medical Office for Douma.

The Syrian military has besieged and bombarded Douma for years, with attacks since the summer killing hundreds of civilians.

Meanwhile, Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush has advised young men in regime-held areas to leave for opposition-controlled territory to avoid forced conscription.

Facing manpower shortages in the military, the Syrian security services have reportedly been seizing men at checkpoints and carrying out house raids. The maximum age for service has been raised to 42.

3 More Iranian Personnel Killed in Battles

Iranian media have confirmed the deaths of three more Revolutionary Guards personnel in Syria.

Tasnim said Mohammad Reza Ebrahimi was killed near Aleppo. No details were given of the deaths of a second lieutenant and another fighter, both from Guards’ artillery groups.

The latest casualties bring the Iranian death toll to 60, including seven commanders, since October 7.

Russia Declares “Joint Military Operations” with France Against “Terrorists”

Russia has continued its declarations that it will co-operate with France against “terrorists” in Syria.

Russian military spoksesman Andrey Kartapolov said on Wednesday:

Under the Russian president’s decree, the General Staff is working out joint anti-terrorism operations with the French Navy. With the arrival of the Charles de Gaulle warship to the Syrian shore we will organize joint military operations.

Seizing upon the start of French bombing of Islamic State positions, Moscow put out the line on Tuesday that President Putin had instructed Russian naval commanders, already in the eastern Mediterranean, to establish cooperation with the arriving French forces.

However, an unnamed Russian source said Moscow’s warships will provide no air defense or anti-submarine support for the French group led by the aircraft carrier.

Kartapolov also asserted — following revelations of US airstrikes on trucks carrying oil produced by the Islamic State — that Russian warplanes have destroyed hundreds of the tankers: “In the first several days alone, our warplanes destroyed about 500 fuel tank trucks. This has considerably cut down the militants’ capability for an illegal export of energy resources and, consequently, for getting the revenues for the contraband.”

The spokesman added on Thursday that more strikes destroyed “three major oil facilities”, an oil pumping station, three depots with oil, as well as a “headquarters” and a “command center”.

He said that the missions were flown by Tu-95MS strategic bombers and long-range Tu-22M3 aircraft.