Beirut: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said it’s still too early to say whether he’ll run for re-election next year, but that he would refrain from seeking a third term - if he feels that’s what most Syrians want him to do.
Al Assad, who spoke in an interview with Turkey’s private Halk TV, made no mention of his government’s role in the civil war that has killed at least 100,000 people so far, instead blaming foreign fighters and governments, including Turkey’s, for the bloodshed.
The interview, broadcast late on Thursday, was the latest in a series the Syrian president has given to foreign media as part of a charm offensive in the wake of the Russian-brokered deal that averted the threat of a US air strike over an August chemical weapons attack, which killed hundreds of people.
Regarding a potential bid for another seven-year term, “the picture will be clearer” in the next four to five months because Syria is going though “rapid” changes on the ground, Al Assad said.
Al Assad has been president since 2000 when he took over after his father and predecessor, Hafez Al Assad, died after ruling Syria for three decades. His second seven-year-term ends in mid-2014.
Syria’s opposition wants Al Assad to step down and hand over power to a transitional government until new elections are held.
Despite the bloody conflict, Al Assad still enjoys wide support among minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect.
“If I have a feeling that the Syrian people want me to be president in the coming period I will run for the post,” Al Assad said. “If the answer is no, I will not run and I don’t see a problem in that.”
Al Assad used the interview to attack Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warning Ankara will pay “a high price” for allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria from its territory to fight the Syrian government forces.
Erdogan has been one of Al Assad’s harshest critics since Syria’s uprising erupted in March 2011.
“This government, represented by Erdogan, is responsible for the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians, and is responsible for the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure,” Al Assad said. It is also “responsible for endangering security of the region, not only Syria.”
“You cannot hide terrorists in your pocket. They are like a scorpion, which will eventually sting you,” Al Assad added, saying Muslim extremists from more than 80 countries are coming to Syria by sneaking across the border with Turkey.
Meanwhile, a team of international weapons experts visiting Syria left their Damascus hotel early on Friday, heading out on their fourth day of work in the country. Their mission - endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution last week - is to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by November 1 and to destroy Al Assad’s entire stockpile by mid-2014.
Their mission stems from the deadly August 21 attack on opposition-held Damascus suburbs in which the UN has determined the nerve agent sarin was used. The US and its allies accuse Al Assad’s government of being responsible for the attack, while Damascus blames the rebels. The US has said it killed 1,400 people. Death toll estimates by activists and rights groups are significantly lower, but still in the hundreds.
In the interview with Halk TV, Al Assad dismissed long circulating rumors that his secretive younger brother, Maher Al Assad, a top army brigadier general, had been wounded in an assassination attempt.
“All rumors about our family during the crisis are baseless lies,” Al Assad said, and added about Maher, “He is present and on top of his work, at his post and in good health.”
The younger Al Assad commands elite troops tasked with protecting Damascus from rebels on the city’s outskirts. He is widely believed to have played a key role in directing the campaign against the uprising in the early days of 2011. He has also gained a reputation for brutality among opposition activists.