Syrian government ready to join UN talks to end conflict - Assad aide

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a TV interview in Damascus in this still image taken from a video on Nov29.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a TV interview in Damascus in this still image taken from a video on Nov29.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (REUTERS) - A close adviser to Syrian President Bashar al Assad said on Wednesday Damascus was ready to join UN-sponsored peace talks with its position bolstered by both Russian backing and the West's retreat from a hardline anti-Assad approach.

Bouthaina Shaaban said her government approved of UN resolutions passed last week endorsing an international road map for a Syria peace process, a rare display of unity among global powers on a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people.

"We accept these resolutions," she told Beirut-based al Mayadeen television in the first official Syrian remarks on the matter.

The resolutions gave UN blessing to a plan negotiated earlier in Vienna that calls for a ceasefire, talks between the Syrian government and opposition, and a roughly two-year timeline to create a unity government and hold elections.

Shaaban said Damascus perceived a softening of the West's stance on Assad driven by a spillover of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) militant attacks into its own communities - most recently in Paris on Nov 13 when shootings and suicide bombings killed 130 people.

ISIS is the strongest insurgent force in Syria and Assad has said that ousting him would clear the way for Islamist militants to take over the country and endanger the wider world.

Western powers have demanded that Assad quit power as part of any peace settlement. Damascus has rejected such calls.

"It was not easy for the West to retreat. This is the first time that the West's word has been defeated over Syria ... The Russian strategy in getting these (diplomatic) understandings is successful and clever and will bear fruit," Shaaban said.

"The Russian intervention has had great importance in the Syrian crisis," she told al-Mayadeen television.

Russia and Iran have been Assad's main allies in the almost five-year-old conflict, while Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states and Western powers have supported insurgents fighting to overthrow him.

Three months of Russian air strikes twinned with army ground offensives backed by Iranian forces and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have shored up Assad in his western Syrian heartland.

"We are now in a much better position that we were in... There is real international partnership to combat terror, a big understanding of (our) position and the turnaround that started a year ago is now coming to a full circle," Shaaban said.

She dismissed a Saudi-backed opposition body formed from some of the major fighting groups and a wide spectrum of political organisations that will lead its negotiating team at the U.N.-backed talks.

Shaaban said it was "shameful" that the West backed a Saudi- based body that supposedly "wants to create democracy in Syria" with the help of "a country that has no parliament or elections".

A senior UN official said on Tuesday the United Nations envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, planned to convene peace talks in Geneva in about a month's time.