Assad offered to hold talks with rebels in a bid to end the crisis on the condition they lay down their arms, but made the distinction between the “political entities” he would talk with and “armed terrorists”.
“We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms,” Assad told The Sunday Times in a video-taped interview conducted last week in his Damascus residence, the Al-Muhajireen palace.
“We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists.”
His offer of talks echoed that of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in Moscow last week — the first such move by a top Syrian official.
Syria is locked in a 23-month-long conflict in which the United Nations estimates more than 70,000 have been killed but Assad dismissed the idea that the fighting is linked to his continued role as president.
“If this argument is correct, then my departure will stop the fighting,” Assad said. “Clearly this is absurd, and other recent precedents in Libya, Yemen and Egypt bear witness to this.”
Assad accused the British government of wanting to arm “terrorists” in his country.
“How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists and don’t try to ease the dialogue between the Syrians?”
Britain has been pushing for the lifting of a European ban on arms supplies to Syrian rebels but at a meeting last month European Union foreign ministers decided instead to allow only “non-lethal” aid and “technical assistance” to flow to the Syria’s opposition.
Assad added that “Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in different issues for decades, some say for centuries — I’m telling you the perception in our region.
“The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of a bullying hegemony.”
The British government is currently bound by an EU arms embargo which European foreign ministers decided not to lift at a meeting in Brussels on February 18.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague had called for changes to the existing arms ban “so that we can provide a broader range of support to the National Coalition”, the opposition umbrella group in Syria.
“We give them strong political and diplomatic support. We also give them assistance in terms of equipment at the moment to help them try to save people’s lives,” he added. “I think there is a broader range of equipment that we could give to them.”
Assad in his interview dismissed the suggestion that Britain could play a constructive role in resolving the fighting, saying: “We don’t expect an arsonist to be a firefighter.”
He said that for a long time there had been no contact between the Syria regime and the British government, which lacked credibility in its dealings with Syria because of its history in the Middle East.
“If you want to talk about the role, you cannot separate the role from the credibility,” Assad said.
“And we cannot separate the credibility from the history of that country.”
Assad accused Britain of wanting to escalate the conflict through its desire to supply military equipment to the rebels.
“How can we expect to ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem?” Assad said.
“I think they are working against us and they are working against the interests of the UK itself.
“This government is acting in a naive, confused and unrealistic manner. If they want to play a role they have to change this, they have to act in a more reasonable and more responsible way.”