Assad "says fighting largely over by end of year" - Russian
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad has forecast that much of the fighting in the Syrian civil war will be over by the end of the year, a former Russian prime minister was quoted on Monday as saying.
"This is what he told me: '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'," Itar-Tass news agency quoted Sergei Stepashin as saying.
Stepashin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former head of Russia's FSB security service, portrayed Assad as secure, in control and in "excellent athletic shape" after a meeting in Damascus last week.
"'Tell Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) that I am not Yanukovich, I'm not going anywhere'," Stepashin quoted Assad as saying during their meeting, state-run news agency RIA reported.
Yanukovich fled to Russia in February after he was pushed from power by protests that followed his decision to spurn closer ties with the European Union and turn to Moscow. Russian leaders have criticised him for losing control of his country.
Stepashin suggested Assad faced no such threat and was likely to win a presidential election this year.
"There is not a shadow of a doubt that he knows what he's doing," RIA quoted Stepashin as saying.
"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," he said, appearing to draw a contrast with Yanukovich and his family.
Stepashin, who served as prime minister in 1999 under President Boris Yeltsin and now heads a charitable organisation called the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, added that "the fighting spirit of the Syrian army is extremely high".
Russia has been Assad's most powerful supporter during the three-year-old conflict that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people in Syria, blocking Western and Arab efforts to drive him from power.
Russia and the United States organised peace talks that began in January between Assad's government and its foes. But no agreement was reached and a resumption appears unlikely soon, in part because of high tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
Russian officials say Moscow is not trying to prop up Assad and but that his exit from power cannot be a precondition for a political solution. Their assessments of his future have varied with the fortunes of his military.
Assad has lost control of large swathes of northern and eastern Syria to Islamist rebels and foreign jihadis. But his forces, backed by militant group Hezbollah and other allies, have driven rebels back from around Damascus and secured most of central Syria.
The head of Hezbollah said in an interview published on Monday Assad no longer faced a threat of being overthrown, and would stand for re-election this year.
Stepashin predicted Assad would win.
"The majority of the Syrian population will vote for him," Itar-Tass quoted him as saying.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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