Syrian president says government supports peace talks but will not stop 'fighting terrorism', and calls on refugees to return home from Europe
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to retake the entire country but warned it could take a "long time" as international efforts to secure a lasting ceasefire in the country's near five-year war appeared to be floundering.
Speaking to the AFP news agency at his office in Damascus on Thursday, Assad said he supported peace talks, but that negotiations did "not mean that we stop fighting terrorism".
He said a major Russian-backed government offensive in the northern province of Aleppo was aimed mainly at severing the opposition's supply route from Turkey.
Assad said he saw a risk that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key backers of the opposition, would intervene militarily in Syria.
He also addressed the massive flow of refugees from his country, saying it was up to Europe to stop "giving cover to terrorists" so that Syrians could return home.
Assad rejected UN allegations of war crimes committed by government forces, describing them as "politicised" and lacking evidence.
With air support from key ally Russia and backing by pro-government militia fighters, government troops have nearly encircled Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Assad said his government's eventual goal was to retake all of Syria, large swathes of which are under the control of rebel forces or the Islamic State (IS) group.
"Regardless of whether we can do that or not, this is a goal we are seeking to achieve without any hesitation," he said.
"It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part," he added.
Assad said it would be possible to "put an end to this problem in less than a year" if opposition supply routes from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq were cut.
But, if not, he said, "the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price."
First comments since failed talks
The interview was the first Assad has given since the effective collapse of a new round of peace talks in Geneva earlier this month.
The talks are officially "paused" until 25 February, and 17 nations agreed late on Thursday a proposed temporary ceasefire within a week intended to bolster efforts for new negotiations.
The plan also calls for humanitarian aid access to all of Syria.
Talks are expected to reconvene in Geneva the following week, with Jan Egeland, the head of a Norweigan aid group, calling on those with influential roles to ensure all parties follow through on the conditions of the ceasefire.
"This could be the breakthrough we have been waiting for to get full access to desperate civilians inside Syria," Egeland said. "But it requires that all those with influence on all sides of the conflict are putting pressure on the parties."
However, scepticism still remains among top officials, such as the UN chief spokesman in Geneva, Ahmad Fawzi.
"You’re asking for certainty in a very cloudy situation. Politics is the art of the possible," he told a UN briefing.
Assad said his government has "fully believed in negotiations and in political action since the beginning of the crisis."
"However, if we negotiate, it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism. The two tracks are inevitable in Syria."
The Aleppo offensive has been the main focus of Syrian government troops in recent weeks.
The government has virtually encircled rebels in eastern parts of Aleppo city after severing their main supply line to the Turkish border.
"The main battle is about cutting the road between Aleppo and Turkey, for Turkey is the main conduit of supplies for the terrorists," Assad said.
The operation has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands fleeing their homes, and many flocking to the border with Turkey seeking entry.
The refugees could join a wave of more than four million Syrians who have left the country since the conflict began in March 2011.
Last year, many of those refugees began seeking asylum in Europe in a major crisis that has failed to slow throughout the winter.
Assad said the blame for the influx lay at Europe's feet.
"I would like to ask every person who left Syria to come back," he said.
"They would ask 'why should I come back? Has terrorism stopped?'"
Instead, he urged Europe's governments "which have been a direct cause for the emigration of these people, by giving cover to terrorists in the beginning and through sanctions imposed on Syria, to help in making the Syrians return to their country".