BEIRUT: A Syrian truce brokered by Russia and Turkey was under growing strain on Monday as rebels vowed to respond to government violations and President Bashar al Assad said the army would retake an important rebel-held area near Damascus.
Assad, in comments to French media, also said his government was ready to negotiate on “everything” at peace talks his Russian allies hope to convene in Kazakhstan, including his own position within the framework of the Syrian constitution.
But he indicated any new constitution must be put to a referendum and it was up to Syrians to elect their president.
His opponents have insisted throughout nearly six years of civil war that he must leave power under any future peace deal. But since Russia joined the war on his side in late 2015, his government’s position on the battlefield has strengthened dramatically, giving him greater leverage now than at any time since the war’s earliest days.
The ceasefire which came into effect on Dec 30 aims to pave the way for the new peace talks which Russia hopes to convene with Turkish and Iranian support. But no date has been set for the talks and the warring sides have accused each other of truce violations.
Assad blamed truce violations on the insurgents, and said the army must “prevent terrorists from using the water to throttle the capital”. He said it was the army’s job to recapture the Wadi Barada area, which he said had been occupied by an extremist group not covered by the ceasefire.
Rebels deny the area is in extremist hands. The United Nations has said 5.5 million people have had little or no running water for more than two weeks in Damascus.
It blamed “deliberate targeting” for destroying the pumping station, without saying by whom. Rebels accuse the government.
The spokesman for one of the rebel groups that signed the ceasefire said rebel leaders had concluded they could not continue abiding the truce in what he described as a “unilateral way”, and they would respond to attacks by the other side.
Asked if the government planned to recapture the IS-held city of Raqqa, Assad said it was the Syrian army’s role to liberate “every inch” of Syrian land and all Syria should be under state authority.
“But the question is related to when, and our priorities. This is a military matter linked to military planning and priorities,” he added.
The Syrian government dismisses opposition groups backed by Assad’s enemies as foreign creations. In his comments to the French media, Assad asked “Who will be (in Astana) from the other side- We do not yet know. Will it be a real Syrian opposition?”
Dismissing groups he said were backed by Saudi Arabia, France and Britain, Assad said discussion of “Syrian issues” must be by Syrian groups. The main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee, is backed by Riyadh.
HNC member Riad Nassan Agha said he had not heard of anyone being invited to the Astana talks yet.
“Syrians do not yet feel that there is a ceasefire. The battles are continuing: the attack on Wadi Barada, on (rural) western Aleppo, on Idlib, on the Ghouta (suburban area near) Damascus, Deraa,” he said.
Astana “cannot succeed unless the ceasefire is implemented”, he said.