Zee Media Bureau
Beirut: Expressing confidence that he would register victory in his country`s civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has warned Israel that Damascus will respond in kind to any future airstrikes on his territory.
In an interview which was broadcast on Thursday, al-Assad also revealed that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts recently.
Assad’s comments to the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar were in line with a forceful and confident message the regime has been sending in recent days, even as the international community attempts to launch a peace conference in Geneva, possibly next month. The strong tone coincided with recent military victories in battles with armed rebels trying to topple him.
Assad, who appeared animated and gestured frequently in the TV interview, said he has been confident from the start of the conflict more than two years ago that he would be able to defeat his opponents.
"Regarding my confidence about victory, had we not had this confidence, we wouldn`t have been able to fight in this battle for two years, facing an international attack," he said. Assad portrayed the battle to unseat him as a "world war against Syria and the resistance" — a reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah, a close ally.
"We are confident and sure about victory, and I confirm that Syria will stay as it was," he said, "but even more than before, in supporting resistance fighters in all the Arab world."
Assad has said he would stay in power at least until elections scheduled in 2014, but he went further in the interview, saying he "will not hesitate to run again" if the Syrian people want him to do so.
Taking a tough line, he also warned that Syria would strike back hard against any future Israeli airstrike.
Assad said there was "popular pressure" to open a military front against Israel on the Golan Heights but such a move would require serious political, social and military deliberation.
Earlier this month, Israel had struck near Damascus, targeting suspected shipments of advanced weapons purportedly intended for Hezbollah. Syria did not respond at the time.
Assad said he has informed other countries that Syria would respond next time. "If we are going to retaliate against Israel, this retaliation should be a strategic response," he said.
Russia`s S-300 missiles would significantly boost Syria`s air defences and are seen as a game-changer, but Assad was unclear whether Syria has received a first shipment.
In the interview, Assad was asked about the S-300s, but his answer was general.
He said Russia`s weapons shipments are not linked to the Syrian conflict. "We have been negotiating with them about different types of weapons for years, and Russia is committed to Syria to implement these contracts," he said.
"All we have agreed on with Russia will be implemented and some of it has been implemented recently, and we and the Russians continue to implement these contracts," he said.
Earlier this week, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel considered the S-300s in Syrian hands a threat and signalled it was prepared to use force to stop delivery. Israel had no comment on Thursday.
The US and Israel had urged Russia to cancel the sale, but Russia rejected the appeals.
Meanwhile, Assad dismissed Syria`s political opposition as foreign-directed exiles who don`t represent the people of Syria.
The Syrian National Coalition has been meeting for more than a week in Istanbul to expand its membership, elect new leaders and devise a strategy for possible peace talks.
Coalition members got bogged down in personnel issues for much of the time. On Thursday, they announced that under current circumstances, they will not attend peace talks.
In the interview, Assad reiterated that the Syrian government is ready to attend in principle, though he said any agreement reached there would have to be put to a referendum.
"We will go to this conference as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Whom do they represent?" he said of the opposition.
"We know that we are going to negotiate with the countries that stand behind it (the opposition) and not to negotiate with them. When we speak with the slave, we are indirectly negotiating with the master," he added.
The coalition`s decision not to attend the talks could torpedo the only peace plan the international community has been able to rally behind, although prospects for its success appeared doubtful from the start.
(With Agency inputs)