Syria’s Assad rejects ‘transitional body’ demanded by rebels


BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad has proposed a national unity government and rejected a key opposition demand for a transitional ruling body with full powers, in remarks published Wednesday that could complicate international peace efforts.

In an interview with Russia’s state news agency Sputnik, Assad also said the recapture of the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group “is a result of our determination to clean all of Syria from terrorists.”

He said his forces would continue to advance toward the IS de facto capital Raqqa and the far eastern city of Deir el-Zour, which is mostly held by the extremists.

Syrian government forces, aided by allied militias and Russian airstrikes, have advanced on a number of fronts in recent months, and in the interview a visibly buoyant Assad showed little interest in acceding to the opposition’s demands.

“First of all, regarding the definition of the ‘transitional period,’ such a definition does not exist,” Assad said in the interview with Sputnik, which published excerpts on its website.

“The transition period must be under the current constitution, and we will move on to the new constitution after the Syrian people vote for it,” Assad said.

His comments run counter to demands by the Syrian opposition for a “transitional body with full executive powers,” which major powers agreed on at a Geneva conference in June 2012. That agreement remains the basis of U.N.-mediated talks which are slated to resume in April.

“Bashar Assad can say whatever he wants, but the Geneva Communique and Security Council resolutions talk about something else,” said George Sabra, a negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee representing the Syrian opposition at talks in Geneva, which are set to resume next month.

Sabra said a national unity government that dilutes the current Cabinet with members of the opposition was “absolutely out of the question.”

A roadmap for a transition in Syria outlined in a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December calls for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations which would establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months and set up a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution to be followed by U.N.-supervised elections.

Assad said a national unity government would be formed by various Syrian political forces — “opposition, independent, the current government and others.”

“Neither the Syrian constitution, nor the constitution of any other country in the world includes anything that is called a transitional body of power. It’s illogical and unconstitutional,” he said.

In excerpts of the interview published on the Syrian presidency’s Facebook page, Assad also dismissed a recent declaration of a federal region by Syria’s main Kurdish faction, saying that Syria is not ready for federalism.

He claimed most Kurds want to live in a unified Syria under a central leadership and that if put to a referendum, the choice of federalism would not be approved by a majority of Syrians.

Early Wednesday, Syria’s state-run news agency said Assad sent a message to the U.N. secretary-general reiterating his readiness to cooperate with all “sincere” efforts to fight terrorism.

Assad also thanked Ban Ki-moon for the U.N. chief’s statements welcoming the Syrian army’s recapture of Palmyra and its world-famous archaeological site from Islamic State militants. SANA says Assad also urged the U.N. chief to support the Syrian government’s efforts in rebuilding Palmyra.

Ban had said on Sunday that the world body is “encouraged and fortunate” that Syrian troops retook Palmyra.

Russia meanwhile said it has sent combat engineers to help clear mines in Palmyra. The Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the sapper units airlifted to Syria have an array of equipment, including state-of-the art robotic devices, to defuse mines at the town’s 2,000-year old archaeological site.

Russian television stations broadcast the footage of combat engineers boarding a military transport plane at an air base outside Moscow. The team included sniffer dogs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial drawdown of Russian warplanes from Syria earlier this month, but he said that Moscow will continue to strike IS and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Russia’s navy said it has sent another ship armed with long-range cruise missiles to the Mediterranean.

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet spokesman Capt. Vyacheslvav Trukhachev was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the Serpukhov missile corvette sailed from Sevastopol on Wednesday to join a group of Russian ships. He said the Serpukhov will replace its sister ship, the Zelyony Dol.

The corvettes are equipped with the Kalibr cruise missiles, which Russia tested in combat for the first time in Syria, firing them from surface warships and a submarine. Russian navy ships have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to support the air campaign in Syria.

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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.