Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with French media to be aired on Monday that his forces are on the road to victory after recapturing the key city of Aleppo last month.
“We don’t consider it [retaking Aleppo from the rebels] as a victory. The victory will be when you get rid of all the terrorists,” Assad said in the interview with France Info, LCP and RTL television. “But it’s a tipping point in the course of the war and it is on the way to victory,” he said in excerpts provided by RTL.
It was his first interview with French media since the Dec. 22 recapture of the rebel-held east of Aleppo, which had been under siege for months. Rebel forces, who seized eastern districts of the city in 2012, agreed to withdraw after a month-long army offensive that drove them from more than 90 percent of their former territory.
The loss of east Aleppo was the biggest blow to Syria’s rebel movement in the nearly six-year conflict, which has killed more than 310,000 people. The violence has displaced more than half the country’s population and caused massive destruction.
Asked about heavy bombing raids that ravaged the city and claimed large numbers of civilian lives, Assad said, in excerpts provided by France Info: “But you have to liberate, and this is the price sometimes.” He added: “But at the end, the people are liberated from the terrorists”—Assad’s term for all fighters opposed to his rule.
“Of course it’s very painful for us as Syrians to see any part of our country destroyed, or to see any bloodshed anywhere,” he said, adding: “Every war is bad.” The Syrian president asked, “Is it better to leave [civilians] under their [rebels’] supervision, under their oppression, by beheading, by killing?”
Earlier Sunday in Damascus, Assad told visiting French lawmakers that he was “optimistic” about new peace talks planned for later this month in Kazakhstan.
The talks in Astana are being organized by Syria’s allies Russia and Iran and rebel backer Turkey, following the imposition on Dec. 30 of a fragile Syria-wide ceasefire. One of the visiting French lawmakers, Thierry Mariani, said Assad also declared himself willing to negotiate with nearly 100 rebel groups fighting against his government, excluding jihadist organizations.
Assad said he was “optimistic” and “ready for reconciliation with them on the condition that they lay down their arms,” Mariani said. And he said the Syrian leader dismissed accusations of war crimes by his forces by saying that no wars were clean.
“There were probably mistakes on the part of the government” that Assad said he would “condemn” and “regret,” Mariani said.
Turkey has suggested the Astana talks could be convened around the last week of January. On the ground, meanwhile, a massive tanker truck bomb ripped through a market in the rebel-held Syrian town of Azaz on Saturday, killing 48 people and wounding dozens near the Turkish border.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 14 rebels were among the dead, but most of those killed were civilians, including five religious judges belonging to various rebel factions. The Islamic State group is suspected of being behind that attack.