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Syria's Assad: Too early to say if he'll run again

Oct. 4, 2013 - 09:37AM   |  
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Flashpoint: Syria
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BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad said it’s still too early to say whether he’ll run for re-election next year, but suggested he would refrain from seeking a third term — if he feels that’s what most Syrians want him to do.

Assad, who spoke in an interview with Turkey’s private Halk TV, made no mention of his government’s role in the civil war that has killed at least 100,000 people so far, instead blaming foreign fighters and governments, including Turkey’s, for the bloodshed.

The interview, broadcast late Thursday, was the latest in a series the Syrian president has given to foreign media as part of a charm offensive in the wake of the Russian-brokered deal that averted the threat of a U.S. airstrike over an August chemical weapons attack, which killed hundreds of people.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting Friday was underway in different parts of Syria, including the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, reported anti-government activists.

Clashes also continued between Kurdish gunmen and members of al-Qaida’s Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, mostly in the northern provinces of Hassakeh and Aleppo.

Regarding a potential bid for another seven-year term, Assad said “the picture will be clearer” in the next four to five months because Syria is going though “rapid” changes on the ground.

Government troops have been on the offensive around the capital, in the central province of Homs and in the south, battling against rebel advances there.

Assad has been president since 2000 when he took over after his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, died after ruling Syria for three decades. His second seven-year-term ends in mid-2014.

Syria’s opposition wants Assad to step down and hand over power to a transitional government until new elections are held.

Despite the bloody conflict, Assad still enjoys wide support among some Syrians, particularly minorities including Christians and members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“If I have a feeling that the Syrian people want me to be president in the coming period I will run for the post,” Assad said. “If the answer is no, I will not run and I don’t see a problem in that.”

Assad used the interview to attack Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warning Ankara will pay “a high price” for allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria from its territory to fight the Syrian government forces.

Erdogan has been one of Assad’s harshest critics since Syria’s uprising erupted in March 2011.

“This government, represented by Erdogan, is responsible for the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians, and is responsible for the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure,” Assad said. It is also “responsible for endangering security of the region, not only Syria.”

“You cannot hide terrorists in your pocket. They are like a scorpion, which will eventually sting you,” Assad added, saying Muslim extremists from more than 80 countries are coming to Syria by sneaking across the border with Turkey.

In Damascus, a team of international weapons experts visiting Syria left their hotel early Friday, heading out on their fourth day of work in the country. Their mission — endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution last week — is to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and to destroy Assad’s entire stockpile by mid-2014.

Their mission stems from the deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held Damascus suburbs in which the U.N. has determined the nerve agent sarin was used.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops shelled and tried to storm the village of Samadaniyeh near the Golan Heights and brought in reinforcements. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks in Samadanyeh.

The Observatory said Kurdish gunmen attacked a post with al-Qaida-linked fighters near the town of Azaz, which has witnessed intra-rebel clashes since last week. Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory’s chief, said one of the fighters killed belonged to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

The FSA’s Northern Storm Brigade has for days led the battles against al-Qaida’s ISIL in Azaz, near the border with Turkey.

On Thursday, six powerful rebel factions called on ISIL and the Northern Storm to stop their fighting and resolve their differences before an Islamic court in Aleppo, but the appeal appears to have had little effect.

In the interview with Halk TV, Assad dismissed long circulating rumors that his secretive younger brother, Maher Assad, a top army brigadier general, had been wounded in an assassination attempt.

“All rumors about our family during the crisis are baseless lies,” Assad said, and added about Maher: “He is present and on top of his work, at his post and in good health.”

The younger Assad commands elite troops tasked with protecting Damascus from rebels on the city’s outskirts.

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