BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Sunday that there can be no reforms in Syria until “terrorism” has been vanquished, dampening speculation that Russia’s military intervention might herald a swift settlement to the four-year-old conflict.
Speaking in an interview with Iran’s Khabar television station, Assad also ruled out negotiations with the Western-backed groups opposing his government, saying that they are driven by foreign agendas and cannot be part of the solution to Syria’s crisis.
The comments served as a reminder that Russia’s military intervention appears aimed as much against the opponents of Assad’s rule as the Islamic State, and it probably will not propel any immediate political breakthrough.
Rather, Assad expressed confidence that the Russian moves, conducted as part of a new alliance of Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, would draw international support away from “terrorists” opposed to his rule and doom American-led diplomacy aimed at securing his departure.
“We pin great hope on this coalition now, and on these international changes,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview provided by the official SANA news agency. “Western officials are in a state of confusion and their vision lacks clarity.”
Assad said he would continue to send representatives to peace negotiations sponsored by Moscow, which began earlier this year without the participation of the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition and have yet to produce results. He also said he was engaged in talks with Iran over a separate Iranian peace initiative that has so far gone nowhere.
But he said there can be no settlement until “terrorism,” a word typically used to describe all of the government’s armed opponents, has been defeated.
“The only option for us now is to destroy terrorism, because implementing any solution or any political ideas that might be agreed on will need a state of stability. Otherwise it has no value,” he said. “Consequently, destroying terrorism is the foundation of any action in Syria. Political ideas can be implemented later.”
The Syrian opposition, dismayed that the five-day-old Russian air campaign has mainly targeted the anti-Assad rebellion and not the Islamic State, has said it will not participate in any of the peace initiatives on offer because they do not specify that the end goal will be the departure of Assad.
Though Russian officials have claimed that their warplanes are hitting Islamic State targets, most of the Russian strikes have taken place in the provinces of Idlib, Hama and Homs, which are controlled by an assortment of moderate, Islamist and al-Qaeda affiliated rebels.
Both Assad and the Russians have made it clear that they regard those groups as “terrorists.”
“Terrorists do not fight for political reform,” Assad said. “They fight because they receive money or because they have a perverted doctrine, or because they want to have a role in a state that becomes another state’s client.”
Russia is promoting a peace initiative that President Vladimir Putin says should include what he calls the “healthy opposition” to Assad’s rule, a reference to a small group of long-standing government opponents whose presence has been only somewhat tolerated by the authorities and who have long been in contact with Moscow.
On Saturday, Munzer Khaddam, the media spokesman for the group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, was detained by government forces at a checkpoint near Damascus and taken to an unknown location, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights representatives and family members quoted by Agence France-Presse. The news agency said he was detained because he made comments critical of the Russian intervention.