Assad Calls on Syrian Rebels to Join Him in Fight Against ISIS

BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Bashar al-Assad of Syria called on insurgents fighting his government to join with his forces instead, and do battle against the Islamic State. Only after that group is defeated can there be a political solution to the war that has devastated the country, Mr. Assad said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.

Mr. Assad spoke to Russian state news media outlets at a time when Russia is stepping up its military aid to his government and its diplomatic efforts to break the bloody deadlock in Syria. Moscow has been urging Washington and its allies to set aside their calls for Mr. Assad’s ouster and work with him against the Islamic State.

The United States has sought to cooperate only with more moderate insurgents, not with the Syrian government, in fighting the extremist group.

Russia’s recent moves suggest that it is trying to position itself as the white knight in the Syrian conflict.

Russia has sent new weapons and military advisers to Syria, and has shown signs that a larger force could be on its way to an air base near Latakia, a coastal city near Mr. Assad’s ancestral home. Reports in Arab news media and on the sidelines of a recent conference in Beirut suggested that Damascus and Moscow had struck a deal: more direct aid from Russia in exchange for more influence and Mr. Assad’s cooperation in a Russian bid to broker a solution to the conflict.

Mr. Assad did not comment on the Russian military moves in the interview. He described Russia as an impartial intermediary among Syrian groups — a characterization that many of his opponents would strongly deny, given Russia’s support for the president.

“The political parties, the government and the armed groups that fought against the government, we must all unite in the name of combating terrorism,” Mr. Assad told the Russian news media.

In the past, Mr. Assad usually described all armed opponents of his rule as terrorists. But he also offered amnesty to insurgent fighters who changed sides and joined his forces, an offer that few have taken up. His new call for a common front against the Islamic State appeared to be in the same vein.

“This has actually happened,” Mr. Assad said in the interview, referring to fighters who accepted amnesty and joined pro-government militias. “There are forces fighting terrorism now alongside the Syrian state, which had previously fought against the Syrian state,” he said. “We have made progress in this regard, but I would like to take this opportunity to call on all forces to unite against terrorism.”

The United States and most Syrian opposition groups say that Mr. Assad bears blame for fueling radicalism in Syria and spurring the rise of the Islamic State, because of his brutal crackdown on the Arab Spring protests against his rule. For that reason, they say, he cannot be a partner in the fight against the extremist group, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.

But the United States has so far failed to develop an effective Syrian proxy force, while the groups in Syria that have had the most success in fighting the Islamic State are rival Islamists whom Washington keeps at arm’s length.

For his part, Mr. Assad said the United States and Europe were responsible for the refugee crisis and the rise of extremists in Syria because they had backed his enemies. The West “provides protection for terrorists, calling them moderates,” he said.

He also appeared to refer to recent suggestions being floated by Russia and others for some form of power sharing as a solution to the Syrian conflict. He said he would be willing to share power, but he referred only to groups that his government already recognizes and tolerates — groups that have little public support or credibility in the wider opposition to his rule.

For a time, those groups had representatives in Mr. Assad’s cabinet, but they were pushed out over their mildly dissenting views.



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