Assad says Russia 'never' spoke of his departure

Beirut (AFP) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday he has never faced pressure from Russia to step aside, as Moscow prepared to host US Secretary of State John Kerry on reviving peace efforts.

Speaking to NBC News in Damascus, Assad insisted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had never raised the issue of his departure or a political transition.

"Only the Syrian people define who's going to be the president, when to come, and when to go. They never said a single word regarding this," he said.

Assad's fate is a key question in efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to Syria's five-year civil war.

Moscow and Washington have backed a roadmap that calls for a nationwide ceasefire and Geneva-based talks on a "political transition".

But there has been little progress towards a hoped-for resumption of talks this month, and the prospects for such a transition now appear slim.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on Thursday urged Moscow and Washington to push for a resumption of the talks next month.

The talks "have a target date of August," De Mistura said, adding that they need to be "a credible beginning of a roadmap towards a political transition."

Kerry was due to arrive later Thursday in Moscow, a close ally of Assad's government that launched air strikes in support of regime forces in September last year.

- Kerry 'extremely frustrated' -

Moscow and Washington brokered a landmark partial ceasefire in Syria in February but it has since all but collapsed amid continued heavy fighting.

Kerry said before leaving Washington that he would meet Putin "to see if we can somehow advance this (the peace process) in the important ways that people want us to."

Kerry's spokesman John Kirby told reporters his boss was "extremely frustrated" with the failure of peace efforts.

In Washington, many observers have criticised Kerry's outreach to Russia on Syria, arguing he has been strung along by Putin as he seeks to protect his client Assad.

Syria's conflict began in 2011 with the repression of anti-government demonstrations and has evolved into a multi-front war that has left more than 280,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.

Efforts to bring an end to the war have taken on greater urgency since the emergence of the Islamic State group, which seized control of large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in mid-2014.

The jihadists have committed widespread atrocities and organised or inspired a wave of attacks across the Middle East and in Western cities.

A US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes against them in Syria and Iraq, and recent months have seen IS lose significant territory.

Moscow has also been bombing the jihadists, and on Thursday said it had carried out more than 50 strikes against IS near the Syrian city of Palmyra in the past two days.

On Thursday alone six Tupolev bombers flew out of an airbase in Russia and conducted strikes east of Palmyra, near the cities of Arak and Sukhna, as well as in the Homs region, it said.

IS fighters were forced out of Palmyra by Syrian regime forces in March with Russian backing, but Arak and Sukhna remain out of the government's control.

- Colvin 'responsible' for death -

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Washington was to offer to cooperate with Moscow in joint military action against IS and the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front.

In Paris before heading to Moscow, Kerry did not deny the report, but refused to discuss the proposal in detail until he had been to the Kremlin.

According to the Post, which cited sections of what it said was a draft agreement, US and Russian commanders would set up a joint command and control centre to direct intensified air strikes against the groups.

Despite repeated announcements of ceasefires, Syrian government forces have continued offensives on a range of fronts, with fighting especially heavy around second city Aleppo in recent weeks.

Fresh air strikes on two rebel-held neighbourhoods of Aleppo killed at least 12 civilians on Thursday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In his interview with NBC, Assad also said Marie Colvin, a US reporter killed in alleged Syrian government bombardment in the city of Homs in 2012, was responsible for her own death.

"She worked with the terrorists, and because she came illegally, she's been responsible of everything that befall on her," Assad said, speaking in English.

His comments came days after relatives of Colvin filed a lawsuit in a US court alleging Assad's regime targeted her to stop her covering government atrocities.