Syria's Assad says he will regain control over the whole country -- even if it comes at 'a heavy price'

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the AFP on Friday that he aims to regain control over the entire country, even if it takes “a long time.”

Assad spoke to AFP from Damascus one day after major world powers took part in a meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Munich and agreed to implement a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria.

The “cessation” plan laid out by US Secretary of State John Kerry in a press conference following the ISSG meeting allows for the regime’s self-defence but is aimed at halting all “hostilities” in the war-torn country. But the embattled Syrian president evidently believes the plan still allows him to continue the war.

The Syrian Arab Army, Assad told AFP, will try to retake all of Syria “without any hesitation” — even though the involvement of regional players “means that the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price.”

Assad was referring to Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it was prepared to send ground troops into Syria if asked, and Turkish president Recep Erdogan’s recent statement that Turkey “will show patience up to a point and then will do what’s necessary” to help end the crisis in Syria.

Assad’s comments indicate that, even with a cessation of hostilities plan in place, the regime will continue its efforts to regain the territory it has lost to anti-Assad forces over the past four years. Already, with the help of Russian airstrikes, Assad is closer than ever to regaining control over Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

At Thursday night’s press conference, the issue of whether a cessation of hostilities might cement Assad’s hold on power further — and allow him to continue attacks on rebel-held areas — was brought up more than once.

“Yes, it is true that the bombing of the last few weeks, and the aggressive actions of the Assad regime — together with forces of other places and countries that have helped them — has made a difference for Assad,” Kerry said, in response to a question from the New York Times’ David Sanger.

“But that difference doesn’t end the war,” he added. “It doesn’t mean Assad is safe or secure in the long term. … Our belief is there will never be peace in Syria while President Assad is there. Others think differently.”

Kerry noted that the cessation of hostilities does not carry the legal prerogatives of a ceasefire. The purpose of the “cessation” is to provide an opening for negotiating a more binding ceasefire. The regime and the opposition, Kerry added, “need to make their decision this week” about how they wish to proceed with negotiations.

Assad has evidently already made up his mind about he hopes to proceed — specifically, by pursuing
his own “political-military objective” for winning the war, Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former adviser on Syria under the Obama administration, wrote last week for the Atlantic.

By neutralising the armed nationalist opposition, Hof noted, Assad and his allies “create for the West — [and] for Washington in particular — the horror of a binary choice between Bashar the Barrel Bomber and Baghdadi the False Caliph.”

Analysts generally agree that any attempt to pursue a political solution while the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran pursue a military campaign is doomed for failure.

But Obama administration pressure has so far failed to convince the Syrian government to stop its aerial bombardments and sieges of opposition-held areas.

Judging by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments on Thursday, a plan for the cessation of hostilities may not be enough to spur Russia to end its bombing campaign in and around Aleppo.

“Liberating a city captured by illegal insurgent groups — is that an aggressive move? Well, maybe,” Lavrov said. “But it’s important to have offensives against forces that are occupying your country.”

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