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In interview, Syrian president dismisses negotiations with 'puppets' as Moscow talks to begin

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DAMASCUS, Syria — 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 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 suggested he was still unwilling to consider the demands of those who have called on him to step down.

The four-year conflict has killed over 220,000 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. "It cannot be an opposition if it's a puppet ... paid from the outside. It should be Syrian."

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, is not attending Moscow talks.

Meanwhile in Syria, activists said fighters seized a military base near the southern city of Sheikh Miskeen.

Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in the nearby city of Daraa, said Western-backed rebels and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, captured the Brigade 82 base Sunday night.

The fighters seized weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, he said.

The advance strengthens the rebels' grip on Sheikh Miskeen, an important southern transportation hub.

In Damascus, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory said seven people were killed overnight after rebels in surrounding towns fired the heaviest barrage of rockets at the city in months. State-run media said the rocket fire killed three people. Conflicting tolls are routine in the aftermath of attacks.

Senior rebel commander Zahran Alloush vowed Saturday to fire "hundreds of rockets" at Damascus after government shelling on a nearby rebel-held area killed 35 people Friday.


Hadid reported from Beirut.

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