Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue
BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Thursday 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 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.
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 Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria did not respond at the time.
Assad said he has informed other countries that Syria would respond next time.
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.