Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he will not resign before elections in 2014 and warned against the opposition, in an interview with an Argentine newspaper.
Assad also said that he blames foreign intervention for the crisis, and he cautiously welcomed a proposed international peace conference launched by the US and Russia.
Assad spoke to Clarin and the Argentine state news agency Telam in the frank and lengthy interview in Damascus, released on Saturday, in which he also denied that his government has used chemical weapons against the civilian population.
His comments come amid a rare joint push by the US and Russia to convene the peace conference in Geneva.
“We have received the Russian-US approach well and we hope that there will be an international conference to help Syrians overcome the crisis,” Clarin quoted Assad as saying.
“We must be clear … there is confusion in the world over a political solution and terrorism. They think that a political conference will stop terrorism on the ground. This is unrealistic.”
Conference on Syria
The meeting’s date is yet to be decided, but it aims to bring together members of the regime and the rebels.
“We do not believe that many Western countries really want a solution in Syria. And we don’t think that the forces that support the terrorists want a solution to the crisis,” Assad said.
He discounted the possibility of resigning, saying that his stay in power will be decided by Syrians next year.
“I don’t know if [US Secretary of State John] Kerry or anyone else has received the power of the Syrian people to talk in their name about who should go and who should stay. That will be determined by the Syrian people in the 2014 presidential elections,” Assad said. “To resign would be to flee.”
Pressure for action on Syria has mounted with Western intelligence reports that the regime has used chemical weapons on at least two occasions, and as the UN’s death toll passed 80,000 after 26 months of war.
Telam quoted Assad as denying that his government has used chemical weapons against its civilian population, saying that mass casualties could not be hidden if the regime had.
“The accusations against Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons or my resignation change every day. And it is likely that this is used as a prelude to a war against our country,” he said.
“They said we use chemical weapons against residential areas. If they were used in a city or a suburb with only 10 or 20 victims, would that be credible?”
Their use, he said, “would mean the death of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Who could hide something like that?”
Assad also questioned the estimates of the number of dead produced by human rights groups, but acknowledged that “thousands of Syrians have died”.
“We shouldn’t ignore that many of the dead that they talk about are foreigners who have come to kill the Syrian people,” he said, blaming “local terrorism and that coming from abroad” for the violence.
Clarin said Assad denied that his government was using “fighters from outside of Syria, of other nationalities, and needs no support from any Arab or foreign state.
“There are Hezbollah people in Iran, in Syria, but they come and go in Syria from long before the crisis,” he said.
In the latest development in Qusayr, which is in Homs province, at least 32 people were killed on Sunday as the Syrian military pounded the rebel-held central town, in an apparent preparation for a ground assault, a watchdog and activists said.
“We’re hearing that the military is getting help from Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, which is a staunch ally of Damascus,” said Al Jazeera’s Nisreen el-Shamayleh, reporting from Amman.
“The rebels are calling for more help and weapons to try to face the Syrian government [forces]. It seems like a very heavy offensive, that could turn into a ground assault, according to activists,” she said.
If the military overpowers the rebels in Qusayr, “it’s a very strategic win, because Homs is close to Damascus,” she said.