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How Bashar al-Assad's presidency is weathering the Syrian civil war

With the civil war in Syria at an impasse, Bashar al-Assad wants the world to see him as legitimate.

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    Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Australia's SBS News channel.
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As Western diplomats struggle to find solid ground in negotiations over the conflict in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has appeared in Western media to defend his right to stay in power to the international public.

In an interview on Australian public television broadcast on Friday, the Syrian president said his government's bloody struggle against a variety of rebel groups was no more than a war against "terrorism," and criticized Western governments for what he called their "double standard" in seeking to remove him from government. 

"They attack us politically," he said of Western governments, "and they send us their officials to deal with us under the table, especially the security, including [the Australian] government."

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"They all do the same. They don't want to upset the United States. Actually, most of the Western officials, they only repeat what the United States want them to say. This is the reality," he said.

The Syrian civil war grew out of the regime's forceful response to peaceful anti-government demonstrations in 2011, as similar protests swept across the Middle East. When the regime launched a brutal crackdown, torturing and murdering protestors – including children – dissidents began to respond with force. The UN Human Rights Council blamed Mr. Assad's government for "massive and systematized violence" against civilians in a February report. 

The West has prioritized the fight against the Islamic State as part of its efforts against Islamic terrorist groups. The regime regards all rebel groups – and the civilian opposition – as terrorists. 

"What [Assad] is doing here is, he's showing a little leg," Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "He's trying to say that he's in this war against terrorism, even though the West and Assad don't define terrorism the same way. It's a very seductive argument: people are speaking with me; you should want to speak with me, too."

The United States, however, has insisted on Assad's departure from power as a condition in peace talks. 

"There are a lot of reasons why the US doesn't deal with the Assad regime," Mr. Tabler says. "One is his response to the uprising," and the other is that the regime isn't strong enough to retake all of the territories lost over the course of the civil war, meaning its bargaining power is limited. 

Russia, meanwhile, has inserted itself as a key ally of Assad and, despite infuriating the West with its bombing campaigns on rebels considered moderate, its status as a power broker has increased. On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration would propose a cooperation with Russia that would refocus Russian military efforts onto IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate that is among brigades fighting Assad's government. 

Under the terms of the agreement, Russia would help pressure the Syrian government to stop bombing rebel groups the US considers moderates, in exchange for US cooperation on an expanded bombing campaign against al-Nusra. 

Russia, meanwhile, may be unlikely to throw its weight behind any deal conditioned on Assad's departure, Reuters reports. British and Russian sources told the wire service that Russia would continue to back Assad until it was confident that his departure would not mean a collapse of the current government.

Russia's newfound influence in Syria may be limited, but it's symbolically potent. "Critics have assailed it as a miscalculated bid to replace the U.S. as the dominant outside power in the region," noted The Wall Street Journal in May, but to Russian leaders it represents an "overdue return to geopolitical aspirations that stretch back not only to the Soviet era but to centuries of czarist rule."

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