Assad says Israel is helping Syrian rebels

Speaking to an Argentine newspaper, Syria’s defiant dictator says he won’t step down

Syrian President Bashar Assad in an image from video broadcast on Syrian state television Wednesday, April 17, 2013 (photo credit: AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad in an image from video broadcast on Syrian state television Wednesday, April 17, 2013 (photo credit: AP)

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday accused Israel of backing rebel groups, and said he wouldn’t step down before elections are held, rejecting a demand by the country’s opposition that any talks on ending the nation’s civil war lead to his ouster.

Israel provides Syria rebel groups with “logistical support and is even instructing them which targets to attack,” he said.

“For example, the rebels attacked a military site containing a radar installation that defends Syria from the penetration of foreign aircraft, especially from Israel,” he charged.

On Friday, Amos Gilad, a top Israeli Defense Ministry official, said Israel was not seeking to topple Assad, though unnamed Israeli officials have said Israel would bring him down were he to retaliate for any further airstrikes on advanced weaponry being transferred to Hezbollah via Damascus. israel carried out two such strikes earlier this month.

Assad’s comments to the Argentine newspaper Clarin were his first about his possible role in any political transition since the US and Russia agreed earlier this month to try to bring the two sides to the table at an international conference. Such a gathering is envisioned for next month, but no date has been set, and neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed coalition group, has made a firm commitment to attend.

The Syrian president’s remarks highlighted the difficulties the US and Russia face in getting the two sides to agree on the terms of transition talks and brokering an end to Syria’s bloody civil war.

In the Syrian capital Damascus, meanwhile, a powerful explosion went off in the Ruken al-Deen neighborhood, killing three people and wounding five, Syrian state TV reported. It said the blast was caused by a car bomb and that experts are dismantling other explosives in the area.

More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war.

Assad has dismissed those trying to topple him as foreign-backed terrorists. Many in the political opposition say Assad and his inner circle cannot be expected to negotiate in good faith after they brutally suppressed peaceful protests.

In the interview with Clarin, Assad likened himself to the skipper of a ship riding Syria’s turbulent seas, saying “the country is in a crisis and when a ship faces a storm, the captain does not flee.”

“The first thing he does is face the storm and guide the ship back to safety,” Assad was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “I am not someone who flees from my responsibilities.”

An audio clip from the interview was posted on the Clarin website, with his Arabic comments dubbed into Spanish and translated into English by The Associated Press.

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