Syria's Assad rejects key opposition demand

BEIRUT -- President Bashar Assad said in an interview published Wednesday that Syria needs a national unity government that would secure the transition to a new constitution, rejecting the "transitional body" demanded by the opposition, which wants him to step down.

In the interview with Russian media, Assad said Syrian refugees will begin returning home when they see hope for improvement, adding that one of the main causes of migration is Western sanctions against Syria.

"First of all, regarding the definition of the 'transitional period,' such a definition does not exist," Assad said in the interview with Sputnik, a state news agency, which published excerpts on its website.

He said the term political transition means the transition from one constitution to another. "Thus, the transition period must be under the current constitution, and we will move on to the new constitution after the Syrian people vote for it," Assad added.

His comments run counter to demands by the Syrian opposition for a "transitional body with full executive powers." The two sides held U.N.-mediated talks earlier this month.

A roadmap for a transition in Syria outlined in a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December calls for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations which would establish "credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance" within six months and set up a schedule and process for the drafting of a new constitution to be followed by U.N.-supervised elections.

Assad said a national unity government would be formed by various Syrian political forces - "opposition, independent, the current government and others."

"Neither the Syrian constitution, nor the constitution of any other country in the world includes anything that is called a transitional body of power. It's illogical and unconstitutional."

Early Wednesday, Syria's state-run news agency said Assad sent a message to the U.N. secretary-general reiterating his readiness to cooperate with all "sincere" efforts to fight terrorism.

Assad also thanked Ban Ki-moon for the U.N. chief's statements welcoming the Syrian army's recapture of the town of Palmyra and its world-famous archaeological site from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.

Ban had said on Sunday that the world body is "encouraged and fortunate" that Syrian troops retook Palmyra.

SANA says Assad also urged the U.N. chief to support the Syrian government's efforts in rebuilding Palmyra.

For Assad, recapturing the historic town represents a strategic political coup through which he hopes to convince the West that the Syrian army is a credible partner in combating terrorism as it ramps up the fight against Islamic State.

It is an awkward argument that the U.S. has repeatedly rebuffed. Officials in Washington are quick to point out that it was Assad's brutal crackdown on his own people that created the kind of vacuum that allowed extremists like ISIS to flourish in the first place.

An alliance between the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS - similar to the assistance and training provided to the Iraqi military on the other front in the war - seems out of the question.

Assad also told Russian media in interviews published Wednesday that the war had cost his country $200 billion thus far, and that he remained ready to cooperate with all "sincere and serious" efforts to fight terrorism.

The Assad regime has consistently referred to all opposition forces as terrorists.