BEIRUT (TIP): Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast on May 30 that he is “confident in victory” in his country’s civil war, and he warned that Damascus would retaliate for any future Israeli airstrike on his territory. Assad also told the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts recently, but he was vague on whether this included advanced S- 300 air defense systems.
The comments were in line with a forceful and confident message the regime has been sending in recent days, even as the international community attempts to launch a peace conference in Geneva, possibly next month. The strong tone coincided with recent military victories in battles with armed rebels trying to topple him. The interview was broadcast as Syria’s main political opposition group appeared to fall into growing disarray. The international community had hoped the two sides would start talks on a political transition.
However, the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said earlier Thursday that it would not attend a conference, linking the decision to a regime offensive on the western Syrian town of Qusair and claiming that hundreds of wounded people were trapped there. Assad, who appeared animated and gestured frequently in the TV interview, said he has been confident from the start of the conflict more than two years ago that he would be able to defeat his opponents.
“Regarding my confidence about victory, had we not had this confidence, we wouldn’t have been able to fight in this battle for two years, facing an international attack,” he said. Assad portrayed the battle to unseat him as a “world war against Syria and the resistance” – a reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah, a close ally. “We are confident and sure about victory, and I confirm that Syria will stay as it was,” he said, “but even more than before, in supporting resistance fighters in all the Arab world.”
Assad has said he would stay in power at least until elections scheduled in 2014, but he went further in the interview, saying he “will not hesitate to run again” if the Syrian people want him to do so. Taking a tough line, he also warned that Syria would strike back hard against any future Israeli airstrike. Earlier this month, Israel had struck near Damascus, targeting suspected shipments of advanced weapons purportedly intended for Hezbollah.
Syria did not respond at the time. Assad said he has informed other countries that Syria would respond next time. “If we are going to retaliate against Israel, this retaliation should be a strategic response,” he said. Russia’s S-300 missiles would significantly boost Syria’s air defenses and are seen as a game-changer, but Assad was unclear whether Syria has received a first shipment. Earlier Thursday, Al-Manar had sent text messages to reporters with what it said was an excerpt from the interview.
The station quoted Assad as saying Syria had received a first shipment of such missiles. The Associated Press called Al- Manar after receiving the text message, and an official at the station said the message had been sent based on Assad’s comments. In the interview, Assad was asked about the S-300s, but his answer was general. He said Russia’s weapons shipments are not linked to the Syrian conflict.
“We have been negotiating with them about different types of weapons for years, and Russia is committed to Syria to implement these contracts,” he said. “All we have agreed on with Russia will be implemented and some of it has been implemented recently, and we and the Russians continue to implement these contracts,” he said. Earlier this week, defense minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel considered the S- 300s in Syrian hands a threat and signaled it was prepared to use force to stop delivery. Israel had no comment on Thursday.
The S-300s have a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and can track and strike multiple targets at once. Syria already possesses Russian-made air defenses. The US and Israel had urged Russia to cancel the sale, but Russia rejected the appeals. US secretary of state John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week that the US is concerned about Moscow’s continued financial and military support for the Assad regime, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Meanwhile, Assad dismissed Syria’s political opposition as foreign-directed exiles who don’t represent the people of Syria.