Beirut, Jan 9: Syrian President Bashar Assad said in remarks published today that he was prepared "to negotiate everything" at planned talks later this month in Kazakhstan, seeking to cast himself as a peacemaker after his forces' recapture of Aleppo last month.
However, the upcoming talks, brokered by Ankara and Moscow, are still in doubt as Syrian opposition groups have yet to confirm their participation. Syrian activists meanwhile reported what appeared to be a US-led special forces raid on Islamic State militants in eastern Syria.
Omar Abou Leila, who runs Deir Ezzor 24, said four helicopters landed in the desert between the IS-held cities of Deir el-Zour and Raqqa on Sunday. Commandos set up checkpoints and intercepted a vehicle carrying several Islamic State militants, killing all of them and flying off with the bodies, he said.
"It's an operation that apparently targeted an important figure," Abou Leila told The Associated Press from Germany, where he is based. Deir Ezzor 24 is one of several locally staffed underground groups reporting from IS-held territory. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist-run group, said 25 militants were killed in the ambush. Local witnesses said at least some of the commandos spoke Arabic.
There was no immediate comment from the US-led coalition. In the northeastern province of Hassakeh, a car bomb exploded Monday night in the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli, wounding several people, including the driver of the vehicle, state TV, the Observatory and a local official said.
Jwan Mohammed, a Kurdish official in Qamishli, said security forces detained the driver of the car, who lost his legs in the blast. He said the car blew up in a main square that is home to several security offices. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, but IS had carried out suicide attacks in Kurdish areas in the past.
Speaking to French reporters at his Damascus palace, Assad defended his troops' deadly bombardment of eastern Aleppo, saying the alternative would have been to leave the city's civilians to the mercy of "terrorists" a term the government uses for all rebels. Assad questioned the credibility of Syrian opposition groups backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, which make up the bulk of the armed and political opposition to his rule.
"There's no limit to negotiations," Assad said, in remarks carried by Syrian state media. "But who is going to be there from the other side, we don't know yet. ... The viability of the conference depends on that."