By Ryan Lucas Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syria’s president vowed Sunday to abide by the U.N. resolution calling for the country’s chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed.
Speaking to Italy’s RAI News 24 TV, President Bashar Assad said his government approved of the U.N. Security Council plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program, and also agreed to join the international convention that outlaws such arms.
“Of course we have to comply. This is our history to comply with every treaty we sign,” he said in a video of the interview posted on the Syrian presidency’s official Facebook page. “According to every chapter in the agreement, we don’t have any reservation.”
The U.N. resolution, which passed unanimously Friday, aims to strip the Assad regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014. It also calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, though the council would have to pass another resolution to impose any penalties.
For the first time, the Security Council also endorsed a roadmap for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012, and it called for an international peace conference to be convened “as soon as possible” to implement it.
In the interview, Assad brushed aside a question about whether he would personally attend talks in Geneva, saying the framework of the negotiations is still unclear. He said he is willing to hold a dialogue with the political opposition to try to resolve the crisis, but not with armed groups trying to overthrow his government.
“Regarding the militants,” he said, wagging his finger as he spoke, “if they give in their arms, we’ll be ready to discuss with them anything like with any other citizen.”
“We cannot discuss with al-Qaida offshoots and organizations that are affiliated with al-Qaida,” he added. “We cannot negotiate with the people who ask for foreign intervention and military intervention in Syria.”
He also welcomed the recent thaw in relations between the U.S. and Iran, a close ally of Syria that has provided it with weapons and cash to help Assad weather the war.
“If the Americans are, let’s say, honest about this rapprochement, I think the results will be positive regarding the different issues, not just the Syrian crisis,” he said.
The agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was prompted by the deadly poison gas attack Aug. 21 near Damascus. The U.S. blamed the Assad regime and threatened to launch punitive missile strikes, while the Syrian government accused the rebels of being behind the attack.
Inside Syria on Sunday, more than 40 rebel brigades around Damascus announced that they were banding together to form a new group called the Jaish al-Islam under the leadership of the head of one of the most powerful factions, Liwa al-Islam.
Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in Britain, said the move represents an effort by Syria’s strongest Islamist rebel brigades to consolidate on a regional and possible national basis.
The Damascus factions already cooperate on the ground, and it is unclear what practical effect their consolidation will have in the fight against Assad, Lister said.
But the unification effort, coupled with the decision last by Liwa al-Islam and nearly a dozen other rebel organizations to break with the main opposition group in exile, is another blow to the Western-backed political opposition.