Assad says rebels will not win, calls for dialogue

CAIRO Thu Sep 20, 2012 11:19pm BST

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) meets Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Damascus September 19, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.REUTERS/SANA

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) meets Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Damascus September 19, 2012, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA.

Credit: Reuters/SANA

CAIRO (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad said Syrian rebels would not be victorious in their fight against his government although the "door to dialogue remains open".

In comments to the Egyptian weekly magazine Al-Ahram Al-Araby, to be published on Friday, Assad said "the armed groups exercise terrorism against the state. They are not popular within society ... they will not be victorious in the end".

At least 54 people were killed when an air strike hit a fuel station in Syria's northern province of al-Raqqa on Thursday. Activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old conflict.

Speaking from his office in the heart of Damascus, Assad said "change cannot be achieved through foreign intervention".

"Both sides of the equation are equal and political dialogue is the only solution. Violence, however, is not allowed ... and the state will not stand with its hands tied in the face of those who bear arms against it," Assad was quoted as saying.

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met Assad on Saturday in his first visit to Damascus as peace envoy. Brahimi said his visit confirmed that the situation was "extremely dangerous and escalating".

Assad said he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about Brahimi's mission.

"I welcome dialogue with the national opposition but those who choose arms have put themselves in confrontation with the Syrian Arab army," said Assad, who admitted there was corruption and mistakes had been made.

Assad's rule structure draws mainly on his Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while the opposition is largely from the Sunni Muslim majority, enjoying the support of Sunni leaders who rule nearly all Arab states.

That has raised fears that the 18-month-old conflict could spread across the wider Middle East, where a sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi'ites has been at the root of violence in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.

CHAOS NOT DEMOCRACY

Criticising Qatar and Saudi Arabia for siding against him, Assad accused the Gulf states of trying to create a regional role for themselves by fuelling chaos in Syria and other Arab countries.

"Those have suddenly become wealthy after very long period of poverty," Assad said of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. "They imagine they can use their wealth to buy the geography, history and a regional role.

"Bringing down the governments of the Arab world has not worked in the interest of freedom, democracy or ending social injustice as much as it helped create chaos."

Assad also criticised Turkey, regarded as a key player in supporting Syria's opposition, for calling for the demise of Assad's government. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also demanded that Assad step down.

Russia and China, staunch supporters of Assad, have vetoed proposed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to put pressure on the Syrian leader and China has repeatedly said it opposes forceful foreign intervention.

Iran has also backed Assad, providing his forces with weapons.

(Writing by Marwa Awad; editing by Robert Woodward)

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