BEIRUT — Syrian rebels must give up their weapons before the government will agree to hold peace talks with them, Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a newspaper interview published Sunday.
"We are willing to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms," Assad told Britain's Sunday Times in a rare interview with a Western publication. "We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists. We fight terrorism."
Assad's government routinely refers to the Syrian rebels as terrorists.
The president's stance would seem to dim the already cloudy prospects for peace talks in a conflict that has been going on for almost two years and has cost tens of thousands of lives. There seems little likelihood that Syria's disparate rebel groups, who have made major military advances, would agree to lay down their arms as a precondition for talks.
The principal opposition coalition has said it will enter into negotiations only if Assad's departure is guaranteed. The Syrian government has rejected such a condition.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem indicated during visits last week to Russia and Iran — Syria's two major international allies — that Damascus was prepared to sit down for peace talks with armed insurgents. His comments marked the first time that a high-ranking Syrian official had indicated that the regime was willing to talk directly with the armed opposition.
However, Moallem did not spell out whether rebels would first have to put down their weapons. The Syrian president has now clarified that point.
"As with any sovereign state, we will not negotiate with terrorists," Assad said, according to a transcript of the Sunday Times interview posted online by Syria's state-run news agency.
Assad, who succeeded his late father, Hafez Assad, as president in 2000, denounced U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry's promise of "nonlethal" aid to Syrian dissident groups, which is to include food and medical supplies for rebel fighters, but not weapons.
"The intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal," said Assad, who cited the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to illustrate his point. "The events of 11th of September were not committed by lethal aids. It was the application of nonlethal technology and training which caused the atrocities."