Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that his government was willing to negotiate on "everything" during proposed peace talks in Kazakhstan. However, there has been no date set for the talks yet.
President Assad said that his delegation was willing to approach the negotiating table with an open mind during upcoming peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana and that he was ready to discuss even his position as president. Assad added, however that his "position is linked to the constitution."
"If they want to discuss this point they must discuss the constitution," he said, indicating that any new constitution would have to be put to a referendum, and that it was up to the Syrian people to elect the president.
The city of Aleppo was all but destroyed when Syrian troops, assisted by the Russian military, recaptured it in December 2016
A visiting French lawmaker, Thierry Mariani, said that Assad also declared himself willing to negotiate with nearly 100 rebel groups fighting against his government. Despite his willingness to sit at the table with the warring parties, the Syrian president said that lasting peace could only be achieved in a unified country.
The peace talks are now scheduled to start January 23 although it remains unclear who, from among the nearly 100 rebel groups, will attend.
Details on peace talks still unclear
Syria's biggest ally Russia had announced in December 2016 that new talks would be held in Kazakhstan following the recapture of eastern Aleppo from rebel hands earlier that month. Turkey and Iran had also agreed to participate in the talks, but details remain sketchy; it is not clear who will represent the opposition after rebel fighters suffered their biggest defeat of the war in Aleppo. The date for the talks is also yet to be announced; Turkey has suggested that the Astana talks could be convened around the last week of January.
"Who will be there from the other side? We do not yet know. Will it be a real Syrian opposition?" Assad asked during remarks made to French media, as later published by the Syrian state-run news agency SANA. Rebel groups operating under the "Free Syrian Army" banner had announced earlier in January that they had frozen any talks about their possible participation in the Astana talks due to violations of the ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia.
Assad also stressed that the truce was repeatedly being violated and that the Syrian army would therefore have to recapture all of Syria. Assad particularly highlighted a rebel-held area near Damascus where water supplies have been bombed out of service. He added that his government delegation was ready to go to Astana "when the time of the conference is set."
Liberation of "Islamic State"-held territories
Assad acknowledged that the recapture of the eastern parts of Aleppo was a "tipping point" in the war, saying that he considered his military to be "on the way to victory."
"The victory will be when you get rid of all the terrorists," Assad said in the interview which was shown on the French networks France Info, LCP and RTL television. Syria's president is known for using the term "terrorist" as a blanket term for anyone opposed to his government in the conflict.
Asked whether the Syrian government was planning to recapture the city of Raqqa, which is held by the self-styled "Islamic State" group, Assad said it was the Syrian army's job to liberate "every inch" of Syrian land and all Syria should be under state authority.
"Of course it's very painful for us as Syrians to see any part of our country destroyed, or to see any bloodshed anywhere. Every war is bad," he said.
"Is it better to leave [civilians] under [the rebels'] supervision, under their oppression, by beheading, by killing?"
The violence in Syria has killed almost half a million Syrians since 2011 and has displaced more than half the country's population while causing massive destruction.
ss/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP)