Syria's Assad says military gains will speed up political deal

Reuters , Tuesday 29 Mar 2016

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (Photo: Reuters)

The Syrian army's successes and its strong support from Russia will help accelerate a political settlement to the country's civil war, President Bashar al-Assad said, as the two allies maintained an offensive against Islamic State militants.

Assad was speaking in an interview with Russia's RIA news agency published on Tuesday, two days after Syrian government forces, with intensive Russian air support, drove Islamic State group from the desert city of Palmyra.

That military advance, which opened up much of Syria's eastern desert stretching to the Islamic State group strongholds of Deir al-Zor province and Raqqa, came after two weeks of indirect talks at the United Nations in Geneva.

Assad told RIA that the Syrian government delegation "displayed flexibility" at the talks with the opposition "in order not to miss a single chance" for settlement.

"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," he said.

"We did not change our position before Russia's support or after it," he added.

Progress at the talks has been slow, with the government and its opponents deeply divided over any political transition, particularly whether Assad must leave power.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura says he wants the negotiations to address the "mother of all issues", political transition in Syria. But before the talks started, the Syrian government said the issue of the presidency was a red line.

Town Encircled

After seizing Palmyra on Sunday, Russian and Syrian jets targeted on Tuesday the town of Sukhna, about 60 km (40 miles) northeast, where many retreating Islamic State group fighters had sought refuge, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group 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.

The Observatory said remaining Islamic State group fighters had withdrawn from positions northeast of Palmyra. Russian and Syria jets and helicopters were bombarding Sukhna and carried 29 raids on al-Qaryatain on Tuesday morning alone.

If the army takes al-Qaryatain, Sukhna and other pockets of Islamic State control, it will sharply reduce the militant 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.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Ten million people have been displaced, foreign powers have been drawn into the battlefield and Islamic State group has carved out a self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.c 

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