Syria's Assad: Islamic State has strengthened despite airstrikes

In an interview on '60 Minutes,' the Syrian president claimed that IS was expanding and gaining more recruits. He also expressed optimism about 'dialogue' with the US.

In this frame grab from video provided by CBSNews/60 Minutes, '60 Minutes' contributor Charlie Rose, left, interviews Syrian President Bashar Assad, Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Damascus. Assad said any dialogue with the United States must be 'based on mutual respect.

In a newly published interview, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomed the possibility of dialogue with the United States to end the conflict within his war-torn country, while warning that the self-declared Islamic State had only grown stronger since it came under attack from Western-led forces.

With the rise of IS militants in the Syrian and Iraqi north, the removal of Mr. Assad's government has dropped in priority for Western policymakers, who are believed to have kept it informed of the operations of the US-led coalition attacking IS. US Secretary of State John Kerry two weeks ago also suggested that Washington would "have to negotiate in the end" with Assad to find a political solution in Syria, a move that Assad welcomed in an interview with US news program 60 Minutes.

"...We are optimistic.... At least when they're thinking about dialogue, [it] doesn't matter what kind of dialogue, and what the content of the dialogue. ... The word dialogue is something we haven't heard from the United States on the global level for a long time," he told interviewer Charlie Rose.

Assad also discussed the threat that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, poses in his country, dismissing arguments that it is being beaten back by Kurdish and Iraqi forces backed by US-led air support.

"Actually, ISIS has expanded since the beginning of the strikes," Mr. Assad said. "Actually ... you have more recruits. Some estimates that they have 1,000 recruits every month in Syria. And Iraq – they are expanding in Libya and many other Al Qaeda affiliate organizations have announced their allegiance to ISIS."

Assad claimed that the militant group was not winning the loyalty of Syrians, who largely backed their president. "... The majority of the people who suffered from ISIS, they are supporting the government and, of course, the rest of the Syrian people are afraid from ISIS.... I think they lost a lot of hearts and minds."

Assad forces lose Idlib 

While Assad focused his comments in the interview on IS and the US, the weekend saw another party racking up a potentially key victory in his fractured country: the "other" rebels, which include the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The Daily Star of Lebanon reports that the "Army of Conquest" coalition, which includes several Islamist militias including Nusra and the less anti-West Ahrar al-Sham, captured the northwestern town of Idlib from government forces.

Observers of the conflict are now eyeing Idlib as an extremely important test of the opposition’s political cohesiveness as well as its ability to hold territory. Some supporters of the Nusra Front have begun trumpeting the news that the group’s shadowy leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani – would make an important address this week about Idlib.

But the head of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia Sunday issued a statement denying that any “Islamic emirate” was in the works.

The militias, according to Hashem al-Sheikh, “have not come to create for themselves a local power base or an emirate.”

He urged residents of Idlib to take part in a “civilian administration” that would take over running local affairs in the vacuum created by the regime’s departure.

Writing for the Syria Comment blog, Mideast affairs expert Aron Lund said that the loss of Idlib, though not a critical town itself, is a "heavy" blow to Damascus. "It seems that Assad is still trying to bite off more of Syria than he can swallow, and the recent defeat in Idlib underlines how dangerously overstretched his regime has become."

"...Considering the military and economic resources invested by Bashar al-Assad in its defense over the past four years, the loss of Idlib would undoubtedly signal to many of his supporters that the government’s current strategy is untenable in the long term," he adds.

Russian arms pipeline?

In a separate interview with Russian state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Assad said that the Russian government has supplied his regime with new weapons purchased since the conflict began. "There are contracts that had been sealed before the crisis started and were carried out during the crisis. There are other agreements on arms supplies and cooperation that were signed during the crisis and are being carried out now," he said, according to Reuters.

Assad's comments contradict Russia's long-held position that it was not selling new weaponry to Damascus, and that all the arms it has supplied amid the conflict were the result of deals signed before the Syrian civil war began. Russia's Foreign Ministry did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment.

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