Syria's Assad open to dialogue with US

The US wants a negotiated political settlement to Syria’s civil war which excludes Assad.

FILE: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP at the presidential palace in Damascus. Picture: AFP.

WASHINGTON - Syria's Bashar al-Assad is open to having a dialogue with the United States, but there can be no "pressuring of the sovereignty" in the country, he said in an excerpt of an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes that aired on Thursday.

Asked about recent comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry that Washington would have to negotiate with the Syrian leader to end the conflict there, Assad said, "As principle, in Syria we could say that every dialogue is a positive thing, and we are going to be open to any dialogue with anyone, including the United States, regarding anything based on mutual respect."

While saying there had been no direct communication between Damascus and Washington, Assad, who has been fighting Islamist and other rebels since 2011, added, "Any dialogue is positive, as I said, in principle, of course, without pressuring the sovereignty of Syria."

The United States still wants a negotiated political settlement to Syria's civil war that excludes Assad, US officials said earlier this month after Kerry's comments.

The State Department said later that Kerry was not specifically referring to Assad and that Washington would never bargain with him.

Washington has made clear its top priority in Syria is the fight against Islamic State militants, who have seized large parts of the country as well as parts of Iraq.

WEST WANTS TO WEAKEN RUSSIA

Assad has accused the West of trying to weaken Russia by turning Ukraine into a puppet state, a tactic he said had also been used against his own country.

"I keep coming back to the fact that there is a connection between the Syrian crisis and what is happening in Ukraine," he told Russian government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in an interview, excerpts of which were published on Friday.

"Firstly because both countries are important for Russia, and secondly because the goal in both cases is to weaken Russia and create a puppet state."

The United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its role in the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia, a long-standing ally of Assad, denies sending troops and weapons to support separatists fighting government forces in east Ukraine and says Western powers helped orchestrate the overthrow of a Moscow-backed Ukrainian president last year.

Asked about a second round of meetings between the rival Syrian sides in Moscow on 6-9 April, which Assad will not attend, the president said those taking part should not lose sight of the main goal, clearly meaning restoring peace.

Little progress was made at the first round of meetings in Moscow in January. Many Syrian opposition figures shunned the January talks, saying they would appear only at meetings that led to Assad's removal from power.