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Jan 26, 4:25 AM EST

Syrian president dismisses talks with 'puppets' in interview


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed negotiations with Western-backed opposition representatives, calling them "puppets" in an interview with a U.S. magazine published Monday ahead of talks set to begin in Moscow.

The comments came amid already widespread low expectations that the four days of Moscow talks could lead to any breakthrough in the conflict. Even though most Western-backed Syrian opposition figures will not attend the talks, Assad's comments suggest he's still unwilling to consider the demands of those who have called on him to step down.

The four-year conflict has killed over 220,0000 people and has turned nearly 4 million Syrians into refugees.

In the Foreign Affairs interview, Assad questioned if any dialogue with Syria's Western-backed opposition figures would be useful, saying that even armed groups did not see them as true representatives.

"If you want to talk about fruitful dialogue, it's going to be between the government and those rebels," said Assad, before dismissing the majority of armed rebels as jihadi militants with whom dialogue is impossible.

"Opposition means national; it means working for the interests of the Syrian people. It cannot be an opposition if it's a puppet of Qatar or Saudi Arabia or any Western country, including the United States, paid from the outside. It should be Syrian," he said, referring to the opposition's main backers.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has said it won't attend the Moscow talks, though some opposition representatives from within Syria and abroad are expected to participate.

Those attending include Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change.

The Syrian government is sending a delegation headed by Damascus' permanent delegate to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari.

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