By Mohamed Sheikh Yusuf
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has voiced his readiness to send representatives to planned peace talks in Astana later this month with a view to discussing all outstanding issues of contention and ending the almost six-year-old conflict, according to Syria’s official SANA news agency.
“Everything is on the table,” Assad said in an interview published by the news agency Monday. “We are prepared to discuss everything.”
The Syrian government, he stressed, was “ready” to dispatch a delegation — with a mandate to discuss all outstanding issues — to the planned talks in the Kazakh capital.
“When you talk about negotiations aimed at ending the conflict in Syria and discussing the country’s future, everything will be on the table,” Assad said.
He noted, however, that it still remained unclear as to who would represent the Syrian opposition at the talks.
“Will they [opposition representatives] be genuine Syrians?” he asked. “By ‘genuine’ I mean true Syrians. Not Saudis, French or British.”
“The event’s success will hinge on this point,” he added.
Asked whether he was willing to discuss his position as Syrian president in Astana, he asserted: “My position [as president] is related to the [Syrian] constitution, which is very clear about the mechanism by which the president assumes or leaves power.”
“So if they want to discuss this point,” he said, “they must discuss the constitution, which is not the exclusive property of the government, the presidency or the opposition.”
Syria’s national charter, he went on to stress, “belongs to the Syrian people. They can propose a constitutional referendum [in Astana], but they can’t say, ‘We want this president’ or ‘We don’t want [this president]’, because the president comes to power through the ballot box”.
“If they’re unhappy with the president,” he said, “let’s go to the ballot box.”
Regarding the fate of armed opposition fighters in Syria, Assad said: “The government has offered amnesty to every opposition fighter who lays down his arms.”
“This option remains available to them if they want to go back to their lives as before,” he added. “An amnesty is the most we can offer.”
Asked whether pounding Aleppo was the only means of regaining control of the city, Assad acknowledged the devastation inflicted by his troops on the city’s eastern districts.
“Are you looking for a quiet war? A war without any destruction?” he asked rhetorically. “I have never heard of such a war throughout history.”
“All wars are bad,” the Syrian president said. “They all involve death and destruction.”
Answering claims that the Syrian regime had continued to commit frequent ceasefire violations, he said: “Terrorists are still occupying Damascus’ main source of water [in Wadi Barada]. The Syrian army’s role is to liberate this area.”
He went on to assert that Wadi Barada remained “occupied” by fighters from the Al-Nusra Front (currently referred to as the Fath al-Sham Front), contradicting claims made last week by the Syrian opposition.
On Dec. 30, a ceasefire — brokered by Turkey and Russia — went into effect across Syria after being agreed to by the Syrian government and opposition.
If the ceasefire holds, peace talks — sponsored by the UN, Turkey, Russia and the UN — will be held in Astana later this month between Syrian government and opposition negotiators.
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