President Bashar Assad on Thursday said Raqa is not a priority target for his forces, saying his goal is to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory.
“Raqa is a symbol,” Assad said in an interview with French media, while asserting that jihadist attacks carried out in France were “not necessarily prepared” in the Islamic State group (IS) stronghold in Syria.
“You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere,” Assad said, using another acronym for IS.
“Everywhere is a priority depending on the development of the battle,” he said, as a new round of peace talks was set to kick off in the Kazakh capital Astana.
“They are in Palmyra now and in the eastern part of Syria,” he said in the interview in Damascus with Europe 1 radio and the TF1 and LCI television channels.
“For us it is all the same, Raqa, Palmyra, Idlib, it’s all the same.”
The Syrian leader said it was the “duty of any government” to regain control of “every inch” of its territory.
After a string of major losses in both Iraq and Syria, the jihadists’ two main strongholds of Mosul and Raqa are both under attack from forces backed by a US-led coalition.
After a massive, four-month campaign, Iraqi forces are tightening the noose on Mosul, while in Syria, an Arab-Kurd alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, has begun advancing on Raqa.
Also in the interview, Assad categorically denied that his government practises torture and reiterated his rejection of recent allegations by Amnesty International of executions and atrocities perpetrated at a prison near Damascus.
Assad said Amnesty’s “childish report” contained “not a single fact (or) evidence” to support allegations that some 13,000 people were hanged at the Saydnaya prison between 2011 and 2015.
– Winning hearts -“They said they interviewed few witnesses, who are opposition and defected. So it’s biased,” the Syrian president said.
Regarding torture, he said, “We don’t do this, it’s not our policy,” adding: “Torture for what? … For sadism?… to get information? We have all the information.”
He argued: “If we commit such atrocities it’s going to play into the hands of the terrorists, they’re going to win. It’s about winning the hearts of the Syrian people, if we commit such atrocities… we wouldn’t have (popular) support (through) six years” of war.
Concerning international negotiations to end the conflict that has claimed more than 300,000 lives, Assad said Western countries had “lost their chance of achieving anything in Geneva twice.”
While Turkey, Russia and Iran take the lead in the talks in Astana, the West has become “passive”, he said, denouncing the coalition for supporting “those groups that represented the terrorists against the government.
“They did not want to achieve peace in Syria.”
Russia and Iran have helped turn the tables on the ground with their military backing for Assad, while Turkey has supported rebels fighting to oust the strongman.
A new round of the Astana talks was set to kick off on Thursday after a one-day delay for “technical reasons”.
The talks — pushed by key Assad supporter Moscow — are viewed as a warm-up for UN-led negotiations that are due to begin in Geneva on February 23.
The meeting in Geneva, the fifth time negotiators have gone to Switzerland, has been pushed back twice already, in part to give the opposition more time to form a unified delegation.