(CNS News) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an interview broadcast Tuesday played down a suggestion that Secretary of State John Kerry had recently offered him “a lifeline,” saying his regime’s survival was in the hands of the Syrian people, not the United States.
“We don’t breathe through the Americans, we only breathe through our citizens,” he told the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen in Damascus. “That’s how we breathe. This is first. So, it’s not a lifeline for us.”
Assad was asked about a mid-January comment by Kerry, who said in Geneva that it was time for the regime “to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad.”
SPECIAL: Make Barack Hussein Obama pay for his crimes against America. How much are you willing to take before you stand up and do something? This is your opportunity to be a true Patriot. Support the Tea Party Constitution Fund.
Coming more than three years after President Obama first publicly called on Assad to “step aside,” Kerry’s remark was interpreted by some as a softening of the U.S. line that he must go – evidently in acknowledgement that Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists pose a greater threat to regional stability than Assad.
A U.S. shift on Assad’s future would be welcomed by his closest allies, Iran and Russia, both of which have angrily rejected Western calls for Assad’s departure as the conflict has raged.
For his part, the Syrian leader seemed disinclined to view Kerry’s comment in a positive light.
“It depends on what Kerry meant by his statement – or any other official, it’s not about him as a person,” he said.
“Whatever they say, doesn’t mean for us to be puppets. Whatever they say, for us it’s about being independent, to work for our interest …”
Kerry made the comment on January 14 in Geneva, where he had just held talks with the U.N.’s Syria special envoy, Staffan de Mistura. The envoy is trying to facilitate local ceasefires as part of a broader effort to bring an end to the four year-old civil war.
Since that remark in Geneva – and the reaction to it – the State Department has reiterated that U.S. policy remains that Assad must step down.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on January 26 that Assad “long ago lost all legitimacy and must go. There can never be a stable, inclusive Syria under his leadership.”
“Our position hasn’t changed,” she said. “Some of it, I think, is an over-reading into one comment the secretary made that is an inaccurate reading of what the United States position is.”
Asked on January 30 if it would not be natural for the U.S. to have some sort of alliance with Assad in the battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups operating in Syria, Psaki said, “We have no plans to coordinate or partner with a brutal dictator who’s killed tens of thousands of his own people.”
And after an upsurge in regime attacks in the suburbs of Damascus reportedly killed or wounded hundreds of civilians, Psaki’s colleague Marie Harf told a briefing on February 6 that the attacks reaffirm that “there can never be a stable, inclusive Syria under the leadership of this ruthless dictator. As we have long said, Assad had lost all legitimacy and must go.”
Kerry himself underlined the point during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday.
“As Da’esh [ISIS] retreats to Syria, we will continue our fight,” he said, “and we will continue to put pressure on the Assad regime, because there is no place for a brutal dictator who is a magnet for terrorism and allows those terrorists safe haven.”
When Obama last September announced his strategy for “degrading and ultimately defeating” ISIS, he drew a distinction between pursuing a military response to the terrorist group and negotiations for a “political solution” to the Syrian civil war – negotiations which he said were likely “some ways off in the future.”
Administration officials have repeatedly indicated that U.S. support for “moderate” Syrian rebels is designed primarily to help them battle ISIS. A secondary goal is to help them to defend themselves against – rather than defeat – the regime.
“We still don’t believe that there is a military solution to the situation in Syria,” Psaki said on Tuesday. “We believe a diplomatic and political approach is the right approach.”
However, she added that while programs to train and equip the Syrian opposition – due to begin in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia next month – would be focused on ISIS, “we fully expect they’ll use that to go after the regime as well.”
Attempts to secure a political solution to the civil war, through the so-called Geneva process, stalled a year ago, since when the situation has become significantly more complicated by the growth and successes of ISIS.
Russia late last month hosted talks in a bid to revive the peace initiative, but the main Western-backed National Coalition opposition refused to take part.
Assad characterizes all the rebel groups – whether ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, Salafist, Kurdish or nationalist – as terrorists.
“We’re not against cooperation with any country,” he said in the BBC interview. “We didn’t start this conflict with the others. They started, they supported terrorists, they gave them the umbrella.”
Assad also repeatedly denied any knowledge of the use by his forces of “barrel bombs” – explosives-packed barrels typically dropped from helicopters, often in populated civilian areas. He called allegations of their use against civilians in rebel-held areas “childish.”
The death toll in the civil war, which grew out of anti-Assad protests in March 2011, stands at more than 210,000. More than three million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and a large proportion of the remaining population is internally displaced.