MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian army successes will help accelerate a political settlement to the country’s civil war, President Bashar al-Assad said, because they weaken the position of international opponents who he accused of hindering any agreement.
In an interview published as government forces, backed by heavy Russian air power, maintained an offensive against Islamic State militants, Assad said his government “continue to be flexible” in its approach to talks aimed at ending the war.
“However at the same time, these victories will have an impact on the forces and nations which hinder a settlement because those states, first of all, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and Great Britain, are betting on our defeat on the battlefield in order to enforce their terms during the talks,” he said.
He was speaking in an interview with Russia’s RIA news agency published on Tuesday, two days after government forces backed by intense Russian air power drove Islamic State militants out of Palmyra, delivering one of the biggest setbacks to the jihadist group since it declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Indirect peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva adjourned on Thursday after making little progress. The talks were able to go ahead after a limited truce, sponsored by the United States and Russia, took effect last month - although it excludes Islamic State and the Nusra Front groups.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura says he wants the negotiations to address political transition, which he called the “mother of all issues”. But before the talks started, the Syrian government said the issue of the presidency was a red line.
However Assad told RIA that the government delegation displayed flexibility at the talks with the opposition “in order not to miss a single chance” for settlement.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last week that Moscow’s position that Assad’s future should not be discussed at the moment had finally found understanding in Washington.
But a senior member of Syria’s opposition leading negotiations with Damascus said on Tuesday that Assad’s future should be the main topic of the talks in Geneva, and Moscow’s call not to discuss this aims at undermining the negotiations.
Moscow’s military intervention helped turn the tide of Syria’s five year conflict in Assad’s favor, after rebels had made significant gains last year in northwest Syria.
“Russia’s military support, the support provided by Syria’s friends and the military achievements of the Syrian army - all this will lead to the speeding up of political settlement, and not vice versa,” Assad said.
Remaining Islamic State fighters had withdrawn on Tuesday from positions northeast of Palmyra, where they had fought the army a day earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Russian and Syrian jets targeted the town of Sukhna, about 60 km (40 miles) northeast of Palmyra where many retreating Islamic State fighters had sought refuge, the Observatory said.
State media said the army and its militia allies also captured territory around al-Qaryatain, about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Palmyra, including farmland to the south and a mountain area to the west.
“The town is almost encircled,” the Observatory’s director Rami Abdulrahman said. Russian jets carried 29 raids on al-Qaryatain on Tuesday morning alone, he said.
If the army takes al-Qaryatain, Sukhna and other pockets of Islamic State control, it will sharply reduce the jihadist group’s ability to project military power into the heavily populated western region of Syria, where Damascus and other main cities are located.
Russia and Iran, Assad’s two main allies, both pledged to continue support for Damascus after the capture of Palmyra.
France, a key backer of opposition forces in Syria, said the Islamic State defeat in Palmyra was positive news, but should not divert attention from the fact that the main culprit for the conflict is the Syrian government.
“The advances against Daesh today should not lead us to forget that the regime is primarily responsible for the conflict and the 270,000 people killed since five years,” foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said.
In addition to the quarter of a million fatalities, the war has displaced 10 million people, drawn foreign powers into the conflict and created the world’s biggest refugee crisis.
Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; editing by Anna Willard