“Everyone who carries a machinegun is a terrorist,” says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, adding he will not negotiate with armed groups.
In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE on Friday Assad said he would not hold political talks with any armed groups, and accused Washington and its ally, Saudi Arabia, of wanting “terrorist groups” to join negotiations.
He said Syria had had contact with armed groups for one reason only: “To reach a situation where they give up their armaments and either join the government or go back to their normal life … This is the only way to deal with the militants in Syria.
“There’s no point in meeting in New York or anywhere else without defining terrorist groups,” he said. “For us, in Syria, everyone who holds a machinegun is a terrorist.”
His comments come after an agreement was reached on Thursday by more than 100 members of Syria’s opposition parties and more than a dozen rebel fighting groups to send a joint team to meet the government next month.
Foreign ministers of countries opposed to Assad are due to meet in Paris on Monday to prepare for talks with Russia and Middle Eastern countries in New York on Thursday with a specific focus on trying to form the opposition delegation for the peace talks.
A list of 34 members of a secretariat designated to select the opposition’s negotiating team contained 11 representatives of rebel fighting groups, nine members of the exiled political opposition, six from Syria’s internal opposition and eight independents.
The powerful Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham was represented, along with several Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups that have received military support from states opposed to Assad, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States.
At one point on Friday Putin appeared to hold out an olive branch to the West, making what appeared to be Russia’s first explicit statement of support for rebels opposed to Assad in the fight against Islamic State.
At an annual meeting at the Defence Ministry, he said the FSA was engaged in “offensive actions against terrorists, alongside regular forces, in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa”.
“We support it from the air, as well as the Syrian army, we assist them with weapons, ammunition and provide material support.” he said.
But FSA groups dismissed any suggestion of Russian support.