BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a newspaper interview Saturday he won't step down before elections and that the United States has no right to interfere in his country's politics, raising new doubts about a U.S-Russian effort to get Assad and his opponents to negotiate an end to the country's civil war.
In the capital Damascus, a car bomb killed at least three people and wounded five, according to Syrian state TV. It said bomb experts dismantled other explosives in the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said eight people were killed, including four members of the security forces. Discrepancies in death tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Syria.
Assad's comments to the Argentine newspaper Clarin were the first about his political future since Washington and Moscow agreed earlier this month to try to bring the Syrian regime and the opposition to an international conference for talks about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The U.S. and Russia have backed opposite sides in the conflict, but appear to have found common ground in the diplomatic push.
The White House and the Kremlin envision holding the meeting next month, but no date has been set. Neither Assad nor the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed coalition group, has made a firm commitment to attend.
In the interview, Assad seemed to play down the importance of such a conference, saying a decision on Syria's future is up to the Syrian people and that the U.S. has no right to interfere. He also said a decision on his political future must be made in elections, and not during such a conference.
"We said from the beginning that any decisions having to do with reform in Syria or any political doing is a local Syrian decision," he said. "Neither the U.S nor any other state is allowed to intervene in it. This issue is dealt with in Syria."
"That's why this possibility is determined by the Syrian people themselves; you go to the elections, you nominate yourself, there's a possibility you win and a possibility you don't," Assad added, hinting he might seek another term.
"This is the possibility. The possibility is not to enter the conference predetermined on something that the people did not determine themselves," he said.
Clarin posted a video of the interview, dubbed into Spanish, on the newspaper's website. The president's Facebook page later posted Arabic subtitles.
The Syrian president's remarks highlight the difficulties the U.S. and Russia face in getting the two sides to agree on the terms of negotiations themselves, let alone brokering a resolution to the civil war itself. The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition has said any transition talks should lead to Assad's ouster.
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 the Syrian president and his inner circle cannot be expected to negotiate in good faith after they brutally suppressed peaceful protests.
In the interview, Assad compared 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."
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