BEIRUT — Fresh from a major victory over Islamic State militants, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday expressed support for peace talks next month in Geneva but still firmly rejected the opposition’s key demands.
In an interview with Russian media, the embattled leader discussed his vision for eventual reconstruction from a devastating civil war and his desire to let Moscow, a key ally, maintain an indefinite military presence in Syria.
Assad’s comments come just days after his forces drove Islamic State extremists out of Palmyra. Seizing the archaeologically rich city was a big success for his government and its foreign military backers, most notably Russia, which bombed the militants in the desert city.
In his remarks, Assad appeared buoyed by that battlefield win, strongly dismissing as “illogical and unconstitutional” the idea of forming a transitional government to end a civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced millions and fueled the rise of the Islamic State.
The Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace talks, an umbrella body known as the High Negotiations Committee, has called for creating a transitional government that has no role for Assad — a proposition that now seems even less likely.
“There is nothing, neither in the Syrian constitution nor in any other constitution in the world, called a transitional body,” Assad was quoted as saying in the interview with Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news agency.
He instead repeated his desire for forming a unity government with opposition members, independents and current government officials.
The opposition members swiftly rejected that idea.
“The government, whether it’s new or old, as long as it is in the presence of Bashar al-Assad, is not part of the political process,” George Sabra, an opposition negotiator at the talks, told the Reuters news agency.
During an international peace conference nearly four years ago, world powers created a framework to end the Syrian conflict that included forming a transitional authority with full executive power. This remains the basis for the U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva, which completed an initial round this month with hopes of resuming another in early April.
In the interview, Assad suggested that the scheduled talks would continue as planned by their mediator, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy to Syria.
This month, de Mistura presented the government and opposition delegations in Geneva with a document containing 12 “points of commonalities.” The envoy hopes these points will facilitate the upcoming negotiations, although he still does not have a solution for dealing with Assad’s fate, which is the most divisive issue in the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian leader also suggested a long-term military role in Syria for Russia, which has stabilized his rule by intervening with airstrikes in September and further assistance. Russia’s military presence will last “even if the situation in Syria stabilizes in terms of security,” Assad said.
Russia, which runs air and naval bases in Syria, announced a partial drawdown earlier this month but has continued to support Assad.
Russia is giving aid through deliveries of weaponry “in keeping with the existing contracts and the continuation of assistance to the Syrian army by part of the Russian military staying there,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov told the Russian Interfax news agency on Wednesday.
Russia has also sent a unit of military de-miners to Syria to conduct mine clearance work around Palmyra, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax on Wednesday.
Birnbaum reported from Moscow.