A undated handout picture from Syria's official Sana news service released on Monday shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently meeting with members of the Bar Association and affiliated councils in Damascus Picture: AFP PHOTO
A undated handout picture from Syria's official Sana news service released on Monday shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently meeting with members of the Bar Association and affiliated councils in Damascus. Picture: AFP PHOTO

DAMASCUS — Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad poured cold water on Monday on an internationally backed plan for a ceasefire to begin later this week, saying it would be "difficult" to implement.

His comments were the first from the embattled leader on the plan put forward by world leaders in Munich last Friday for a so-called "cessation of hostilities" to begin within a week.

"They are saying they want a ceasefire in a week. Who is capable of gathering all the conditions and requirements in a week? No one," Mr Assad said in televised remarks in Damascus.

"Who will talk to the terrorists? If a terrorist group refuses the ceasefire, who will hold them to account? Practically, talking (about a ceasefire) is difficult," he said, according to a transcript of his comments published by state news agency Sana.

World powers last week called for immediate humanitarian access throughout Syria and a ceasefire to begin within a week, which would not include Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State (IS) group.

But the details of just how the plan would be implemented remain to be worked out, with a UN panel co-chaired by the US and Russia tasked with the job.

Mr Assad said a ceasefire could not mean "that everyone stops using their weapons".

"This is the narrow sense," he said. "A ceasefire must mean stopping terrorists from strengthening their positions. Moving weapons, equipment, terrorists or strengthening positions must all be forbidden," he added.

The international plan is intended to bolster the chances for new peace talks, which began at the end of January but collapsed before getting off the ground amid mutual suspicion and opposition calls for the implementation of UN resolutions on protection of civilians and the lifting of sieges.

As the talks opened, the regime launched a major operation in northern Aleppo province, backed by Russian forces, drawing the ire of the opposition and its backers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The two countries have talked recently about the possibility of dispatching ground forces into Syria to fight IS, and Mr Assad warned that any such intervention into his country would have "global, not just local, repercussions".

The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura arrived in Damascus late on Monday on a surprise visit to discuss the ceasefire plan and efforts to renew peace talks later this month. He is due to meet Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for talks on Tuesday, a government source told AFP.

Mr Assad’s comments followed reports from the UN on Monday of air strikes at at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria that killed 50 people.

The UN called the attacks "blatant violations of international law".

The US also condemned the attacks on civilian targets, which it said included two hospitals in the Aleppo area — a Medecins Sans Frontieres facility and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Aziz city.

Neither the US nor the UN identified who carried out the air strikes.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the latest development "casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people".

An MSF hospital hit by an air strike had partially collapsed. The surrounding area was strewn with twisted metal, cinderblocks and detritus from the damaged building.

"The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict," said MSF Syria operations chief Massimiliano Rebaudengo.

The UN statement indicated the range of civilian targets was far broader, and the death toll much higher, than originally reported from the region.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was "deeply concerned by reports that missile attacks on at least five medical facilities and two schools in Aleppo and Idlib that killed close to 50 civilians including children and injured many," UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

Mr Ban considers that "such attacks are blatant violations of international law", he said.

The fighting in Syria has killed more than 260,000 people since it began five years ago and uprooted at least 11-million people.

Concern also has been raised by Turkish cross-border shelling of Kurdish-led fighters in Aleppo province and a parallel war of words between Turkey and Russia.

"If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organization and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said earlier Monday.

A State Department spokesperson urged Turkey and Russia to avoid any further escalation.

"It is important that the Russians and Turks speak directly, and take measures to prevent escalation," the spokesperson said.

AFP