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‘Active phase’ of Syrian conflict will be over in 2014 – Assad to Russian ex-official

The “active phase” of the military conflict in Syria will be over this year. However, the Syrian government will continue to “fight terrorists,” President Bashar Assad told Sergey Stepashin, the former head of Russia’s Accounts Chamber.

Stepashin, who briefly served as Russia’s prime minister in 1999 and is now the chair of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society charity organization, visited Syria last week with a humanitarian mission. According to Stepashin, he was able to meet President Assad in the center of the Syrian capital.

“When I asked about the military issues, this is what Assad said: ‘This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time – fighting terrorists,’” Stepashin said, as quoted by Itar-Tass.

Assad praised the work of the Stepashin-headed charity, which over the last year is said to have delivered at least eight shipments of medicine, medical equipment, food, and clothing donated by Russians for Syrians in need.

The Syrian president noted that the charity’s work “very successfully demonstrated that the [Syrian] war was not between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, but between gunmen and people of different nationalities and faith.”

‘I am not Yanukovich, I am not going anywhere’
Although Stepashin was not on an official government visit, Assad still asked him to pass a short message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Tell Vladimir [Putin] that I am not [ousted Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovich, I am not going anywhere,” Stepashin quoted Assad as saying.

The Russian ex-official went on to stress the differences between Assad and the ousted Ukrainian President, who fled to Russia in February amid the violent coup in Kiev, headed by the political opposition and radical groups.

“Assad’s strength now lies in the fact that, unlike Yanukovich, he has practically no internal enemies. He has a consolidated, cleansed team. Moreover, his relatives are not bargaining and stealing from the cash register but are fighting, including his brother [Maher Assad] who commands an armored division and risks his life,” Stepashin stressed.

Free Syrian Army fighters walk with their weapons along a damaged street in Bustan al-Basha district in Aleppo April 6, 2014. (Reuters/Mahmoud Hebbo)Free Syrian Army fighters walk with their weapons along a damaged street in Bustan al-Basha district in Aleppo April 6, 2014. (Reuters/Mahmoud Hebbo)

He reminded that Bashar Assad’s cousin, Hilal Assad, was recently killed while fighting insurgents near the Turkish border, saying that “it is very telling, all the Syrians know this.”

Assad told Stepashin that in most regions of Syria, the government “managed to set up an active cooperation and dialogue with the constructive opposition.” There was, however, nothing to negotiate with the gunmen, Stepashin said.

In January, Russia and the US organized the Geneva 2 peace talks between Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition. However, after two rounds of negotiations, no agreement was reached. No date has so far been set for the planned third round of talks, during which the Syrian government and the opposition-in-exile have agreed to discuss putting an end to violence, fighting terrorism, and the formation of a transitional government body.

The Syrian conflict, which has been dubbed the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, entered its fourth year last month. The number of those killed surpassed the 100,000 mark in January, when the UN stopped counting. Activists in Syria say as many as 146,000 people may have been killed in the unrest thus far.

Over 2.5 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries, while 6.5 million have been displaced within the country. Seventy-five percent of refugees are said to be women and children.

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