DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: President Bashar Assad has insisted he will not step down and blasted Britain’s support for his foes, as opposition chief Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib visited north Syria Sunday and hundreds were reported killed in a battle outside of Aleppo.
“We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms,” Assad told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper in a rare interview conducted last week in Damascus.
“We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists,” he said in the videotaped interview.
His offer of talks was aired as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and his Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said they were prepared to broker peace negotiations between Assad’s regime and the opposition, after the two sides had proposed a dialogue.
During a visit of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Saturday that Assad would contest a presidential election next year and it was up to the Syrian people to choose their own leader.
But Assad rejected the idea of standing down to end the bloodshed.
“If this argument is correct, then my departure will stop the fighting,” he told The Sunday Times. “Clearly this is absurd, and other recent precedents in Libya, Yemen and Egypt bear witness to this.”
In terms of foreign support to the rebels, Assad said the “intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal.”
He bitterly criticized Britain, saying Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for peace talks is “naive, confused, unrealistic” while his government was trying to end the European Union’s arms embargo so that the rebels can be supplied with weapons.
“We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague reacted to the interview by calling Assad “delusional” for failing to see that he was to blame for the carnage.
Hague also said that he would this week announce more assistance to the Syrian opposition in the form of nonlethal equipment, and refused to rule out the possibility of arming them in the future.
“This is a man presiding over this slaughter,” Hague told BBC television. “We are the people sending medical supplies to try to look after people injured and abused by the soldiers working for this man.”
In an attempt to consolidate recent gains on the ground and strengthen links between Assad’s military and civilian foes, Khatib crossed into northern Syria from neighboring Turkey and toured the towns of Jarablus and Minbij.
In his first visit since becoming Syrian National Coalition chief in November, Khatib also attended a meeting of 220 rebel commanders and opposition campaigners in the Turkish city of Gaziantep to elect an administration for Aleppo province, home to 6 million people.
Gulf monarchies criticized international inaction over the Syrian crisis, ahead of a visit to the Saudi capital by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“The Syrian crisis has become more of a quasi-catastrophe through the unjustified killing of the Syrian people,” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled al-Khalifa said at the opening session of a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting.
Sheikh Khaled criticized “the international community’s lack of serious and rapid action” toward resolving the nearly 2-year-old conflict in which the U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group based in Britain, reported some 200 troops and rebels killed in eight days of fighting over a police academy in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, with insurgents seizing control of most of the complex.
The group said at least 120 government troops were among those killed in the battle for one of the regime’s last remaining bastions in the west of the province. A police source in Aleppo confirmed that much of the academy had fallen into rebel hands.
Opposition activists say the capture of the base, 7 km southwest of Aleppo, comes as a boost to a joint opposition military command set up last year with Western and Arab backing to try to counter the growing military prowess of the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
“It is a locally made victory achieved by a myriad of brigades from the rural west of Aleppo,” activist Abu Mujahed told Reuters from the area.
“It shows that you don’t have to have a foreign name to achieve victory,” the activist added.
He said the brigades who took the site were mostly Islamist but did not subscribe to Al-Qaeda ideology. He added that an army academy on the western edge of the city is the last major barrier between the rebels and Assad’s forces inside Aleppo.
The walled complex at Khan al-Asal was turned into an army barrack from where artillery and rocket launchers gave cover for Assad’s forces holding around 40 percent of Aleppo, the opposition sources said.
Further east, Iraqi military sources said Iraq shut a border crossing with Syria Sunday after rebels seized the Syrian side of the frontier post close to the Syrian town of Yaarabiya.
An Iraqi official said Sunday that an Iraqi soldier was killed and three people wounded, including a soldier, inside northern Iraq during a gunfight the day before between Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels at the border crossing.
Later Sunday, a key Syrian opposition group accused the Iraqi government of intervening in Syria and “attacking the Syrian people.”
“After the Iraqi government headed by [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki gave political and intelligence support to the Syrian regime ... the Baghdad regime has moved on to a new level of intervention in Syrian affairs,” said the Syrian National Council.
It charged that Baghdad was “attacking the Syrian people, their basic rights and their territorial sovereignty.”
Also Sunday, rebels in the southern province of Deraa seized an artillery unit in Jamla village near the armistice line with Israel, the Observatory said.
At least 108 people were killed in violence across the country Sunday, according to a preliminary toll from the Observatory.