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Syrian army victories 'accelerate' peace process: Assad

Syrian president claims Palmyra victory sets country further on road to peace, and welcomes opposition in future transitional government
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given an interview to Russian media (AFP)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that he expects military successes on the battlefield to “speed up a political settlement," days after his forces defeated Islamic State (IS) group militants in Palmyra.

In an interview with Russian media published on Wednesday, the Syrian president said that while western powers had been blaming him and Russia for complicating the peace process, Russia had intervened to fight terrorism and not just to support him.

Denying that he and Moscow were obstacles to the peace protest, Assad said: “These military actions and successes will lead to the acceleration of the political settlement, and not prevent it".

Assad's government, which is facing down a more than five-year uprising, has been locked into talks with the opposition in Geneva. While negotiations are currently paused they are due to resume early next month.

Analysts have long been speculating that the joint Syrian government and Russian offensive in Palmyra, which ousted IS from the ancient city over the weekend, was partially designed to bolster Assad’s credibility with international powers.

After the offensive UN chief Ban Ki Moon said that he was "encouraged" that Syrian troops retook Palmyra – prompting Assad to thank Ban in Wednesday’s interview.

The UN has long been highly critical of Assad and his forces accusing them of gross human rights violations although since the rise of IS the international community has largely started to soften its stance.

Syrians split over new government

Assad also called for opposition forces to be included in any transitional government saying it was "logical” for various sides to be involved.

However, the opposition was quick to rebuff these calls saying that Syria needed a transitional ruling body with full executive powers and not a participatory government under Assad.

"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," said George Sabra, a negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) representing the Syrian opposition at Geneva peace talks.

"What Bashar al-Assad is talking about has no relation to the political process," he added.

The US, which has also maintained that Assad must step aside as part of a political settlement, also rejected his participation in a transition process, calling it a "non-starter". 

Assad's fate has been a key sticking point, with the opposition insisting that he leave before any transitional deal is agreed. Analysts are also split, some arguing that long-time Assad allies Russia and Iran will be reluctant to have him leave at least in the short to medium term, while others insisting that Tehran and Moscow would be happy to negotiate about his future.

Western officials fear the Syrian opposition will drop out of the peace talks in Geneva entirely unless Russia's ally Assad agrees to step down.

In the interview, Assad did not touch on his own future, saying only that the makeup of the transitional government should be agreed upon at the negotiations in Switzerland.

"There are many questions that need to be discussed in Geneva, but there are not difficult questions," Assad said. "I don't consider them difficult, they can all be resolved."

The West and Russia say they are pushing for a transitional government to be set up and a draft constitution established by August according to a plan agreed by world powers last year. 

Assad said a preliminary draft version of the constitution could be drawn up "within a few weeks," but insisted that the country would only adopt a new constitution "after the Syrian people vote on it".

Assad rejected the prospect of Syria becoming a federal state - an option Kurdish groups have pushed for - saying the country was too "small" for such a political structure. 

"From a sociological point of view, there must be components of society that may not be able live with one another for there to be a federation," Assad said. "There is none of this in Syrian history."

"The majority of Kurds want to live in a united Syria, within the framework of centralised power in political terms, and not in a federal structure," he said. 

Syria's Kurds earlier this month declared a federal region across the several provinces they control, in a move aimed at boosting autonomy but which risks further complicating the talks.

The federalism declaration was broadly rejected by those negotiating in Geneva, including Damascus and the UN's Syria envoy, who branded it as potentially "dangerous".