BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said crushing “terrorists” must come before any political solution to end the crisis in his country, dimming hopes of an international peace conference any time soon.
Speaking in Damascus, Assad praised recent gains by his military forces across the country and said Syria can finish off the insurgency “within months” if people fight with the army through a “popular war”.
“How can we put an end to this battle and turn the table on others and restore security and stability? ... It is through this way (popular war) ... unity between the army and people to terminate terrorism.”
For more than two years, Assad has been battling a revolt against his rule which turned into a civil war.
After looking close to defeat, his forces - backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants - have pushed the rebels outside the capital and made gains in the central province of Homs and others areas.
The United States, Russia and the United Nations are still working to convene a meeting in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition groups to broker a peace deal.
Russia is an ally and arms supplier of Assad, and, along with China, has blocked several U.N. Security Council resolutions by the United States and European powers to impose sanctions on the leader.
Attempts to organize a so-called “Geneva II” peace conference on Syria to revive a political transition plan agreed in the Swiss city in June 2012 have been futile.
U.N. diplomats say it is increasingly unlikely that such a conference will take place any time soon, if at all.
“Terrorism and politics are complete opposites,” said Assad, whose government refers to all rebel groups and many opposition figures fighting for his ouster as “terrorists”.
“There can not be political action and progress on the political track while terrorism hits everywhere,” Assad told prominent members of Syria’s clergy, business and arts community on Sunday evening at an “iftar”, or meal to break the fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
“No solution can be reached with terror except by striking it with an iron fist,” he added, in remarks run by the Syrian state news agency SANA on Monday.
Assad mocked the Syrian National Coalition, the western-backed opposition, as being morally bankrupt and “unpatriotic”, chasing positions of power, changing its stance regularly and receiving Gulf money.
Assad, whose family have ruled Syria for more than four decades, has remained defiant throughout the conflict. As war rages on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, he has carried out day-to-day presidential duties and attended ceremonies.
His wife, Asma, was shown on pro-Assad television channels preparing a charitable iftar meal for orphans on Sunday.
The presence of foreign fighters has grown among rebel ranks and al Qaeda-linked groups have taken control of some opposition-held territory, worrying supporters of the opposition in the west and the Middle East.
Assad, wearing a suit and looking relaxed, said that most regional and Arab countries who supported the opposition have “changed their view toward the reality” of events after two and half years of war.
He said that there are “no exceptions to any means” he would employ to help Syria out of the crisis.
U.N. investigators say Assad’s forces have carried out war crimes including unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence, indiscriminate attacks and pillaging in what appears to be a state-directed policy.
They say rebels have also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a lesser scale.
Over 100,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war and millions have been displaced. Protesters took to the streets in March 2011 to called for democratic reforms but were fired on by security forces, leading to an armed uprising.
Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mariam Karouny and Mike Collett-White