NEW YORK (Reuters) - Russia only wants to keep Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in power and has no intention of fighting Islamic State militants in Syria, the head of Syria’s Western-backed political opposition said on Wednesday.
Khaled Khoja, who became president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in January, told Reuters in an interview that Russian air strikes on Wednesday had hit four districts in the Homs area, killing 36 civilians, but no rebel fighters.
“Russia is intervening not to fight ISIL (Islamic State), but to prolong the life of Assad and support the continuous killing on a daily basis of civilians,” Khoja said, adding that the areas targeted were where opposition groups had defeated Islamic State a year ago.
“It is obvious the Russians didn’t come to Syria to fight ISIL, they are coming to support the regime. They know they are supporting a killer.”
Despite some criticism over its legitimacy in Syria, the National Coalition remains one of the main parties in international discussions to end the four-year-old civil war, which has killed more than 240,000 and displaced millions.
The coalition has been accused of slipping into virtual irrelevance on the battlefield as Islamist and Kurdish groups have grown stronger, but has been working on establishing a new military command structure to head up rebel fighting groups.
Khoja, who said 15 military groups in Syria were part of the coalition, said the fighting groups on the ground were still not being given the means to defend themselves against barrel bombs.
“The lack of support and hesitation from our friends has led us to this situation,” he said. “We’re asking for protection for civilians. We have asked for sophisticated weapons ... but until now our supporters are still hesitating from providing this support.”
Khoja, an ethnic Turkmen and medical doctor, criticized the current efforts to train and equip non-Islamic State or al-Qaeda-linked groups, including by the United States, and called for a complete overview of the process.
The United States stopped pulling new recruits from the battlefield in Syria for training outside the country after some of the U.S.-trained rebels deserted and handed over some of their equipment to Islamist militants.
“The current approach of train and equip of Syrians is not working,” Khoja said. “What we need is much bigger and faster training and (they) need to train the fighters defending Syrian people in southern and western areas.”
He put the numbers of “Free Syrian Army” fighters at 70,000, excluding Kurdish PYD forces, who are deemed as some of the most effective fighters in the country.
“They need to be designated as an official army,” Khoja said. “It’s very slow.”
Khoja dismissed suggestions the United States or other Western countries were softening their position on Assad’s future.
“They are trying to have a practical approach to get him to leave power, but our position is clear,” he said.
“In the negotiation period, we have not put any preconditions, but in the transitional period it’s very clear that Assad has no role in this transitional government.”
Reporting by John Irish; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Storey and Jonathan Oatis