BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a newspaper interview Saturday he won't step down before elections and that the United States has no right to interfere in his country's politics, raising new doubts about a U.S-Russian effort to get Assad and his opponents to negotiate an end to the country's civil war.
In the capital Damascus, a car bomb killed at least three people and wounded five, according to Syrian state TV. It said bomb experts dismantled other explosives in the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said eight people were killed, including four members of the security forces. Discrepancies in death tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Syria.
Assad's comments to the Argentine newspaper Clarin were the first about his political future since Washington and Moscow agreed earlier this month to try to bring the Syrian regime and the opposition to an international conference for talks about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The U.S. and Russia have backed opposite sides in the conflict, but appear to have found common ground in the diplomatic push.
The White House and the Kremlin envision holding the meeting next month, but no date has been set. Neither Assad nor the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed coalition group, has made a firm commitment to attend.
In the interview, Assad seemed to play down the importance of such a conference, saying a decision on Syria's future is up to the Syrian people and that the U.S. has no right to interfere. He also said a decision on his political future must be made in elections, and not during such a conference.
"We said from the beginning that any decisions having to do with reform in Syria or any political doing is a local Syrian decision," he said. "Neither the U.S nor any other state is allowed to intervene in it. This issue is dealt with in Syria."
"That's why this possibility is determined by the Syrian people themselves; you go to the elections, you nominate yourself, there's a possibility you win and a possibility you don't," Assad added, hinting he might seek another term.
"This is the possibility. The possibility is not to enter the conference predetermined on something that the people did not determine themselves," he said.
Clarin posted a video of the interview, dubbed into Spanish, on the newspaper's website. The president's Facebook page later posted Arabic subtitles.
The Syrian president's remarks highlight the difficulties the U.S. and Russia face in getting the two sides to agree on the terms of negotiations themselves, let alone brokering a resolution to the civil war itself. The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition has said any transition talks should lead to Assad's ouster.
More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war.
Assad has dismissed those trying to topple him as foreign-backed terrorists. Many in the political opposition say the Syrian president and his inner circle cannot be expected to negotiate in good faith after they brutally suppressed peaceful protests.
In the interview, Assad compared himself to the skipper of a ship riding Syria's turbulent seas, saying "the country is in a crisis and when a ship faces a storm, the captain does not flee."
"The first thing he does is face the storm and guide the ship back to safety," Assad said. "I am not someone who flees from my responsibilities."
Meanwhile, divisions among rebel groups were on display in the country's largest city, Aleppo, where two Islamic militant groups engaged in tit-for--tat kidnappings of each other's fighters.
From the start, Syria's political opposition has been dogged by infighting, while the armed rebel groups have been unable to unite under a unified command.
The tensions in Aleppo involve a coalition of rebel groups known as the Judicial Council and another faction, Ghurabaa al-Sham. The confrontation began earlier this week when the Judicial Council accused the second group of looting factories in an industrial neighborhood of Aleppo.
The city of 3 million is split between rebel and government control.
Members of the two groups clashed in the area earlier this week, leaving four members of the Judicial Council dead, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
The Judicial Council then seized dozens of members of the rival group and is still holding them, he said. Ghurabaa al-Sham also took hostages from the Judicial Council, but has since released them, according to Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed.
"The situation is very tense in Aleppo," said Abdul-Rahman, who relies on a network of activists around the country. He said Ghurabaa al-Sham has warned it will bring in some of its fighters from outside the city to take on the Judicial Council if its members are not freed.
Islamic militants fighting in the rebel ranks have become increasingly dominant, often taking up frontline positions. They share the objective of setting up an Islamic state, though some are more nationalistic, while others more religious. One of the most powerful of the Islamic groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, is linked to al-Qaida.
Bilal Saab, a political analyst, said infighting among rival Islamic militant factions is inevitable.
"The scene is so polarized and chaotic, it's ripe for competition and positioning now and after the regime falls," said Saab, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, North America.
"The Islamist groups have always been the dominant and most capable, but they have never really been operating under one single umbrella," he added.
In another sign of the chaos bred by the civil war, gunmen abducted the elderly father of Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, his office said. Mekdad's father, who is in his 80s, was seized Saturday in the village of Ghossom in the southern Daraa province, Mekdad's office said.
The Observatory said regime forces arrested relatives of an alleged suspect in the kidnapping.
Mekdad has become one of the main faces of the regime to the outside world.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
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This photo has been <a href="http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/07/tour-worlds-worst-photoshop-propaganda/39932/" target="_hplink">lampooned</a> plenty, but a lot of weird stuff is going on here. Most egregiously, despite sunlight flooding the photo from background windows, Assad doesn't cast a shadow. Maybe dictators don't have shadows like vampires don't have reflections? However, the lack of shadow on the rug becomes even more obvious when you turn your attention to the drop shadow outlining Assad's right leg. Unless he's just levitating. Also, the table. Somehow, that shadow is even worse than Assad's! Perhaps it's actually a magic carpet that doesn't hold shadows. Yeah, that's <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkYNBwCEeH4" target="_hplink">the ticket</a>. And as <em>The Guardian</em>'s image expert, David McCoy points out, the two men <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/jul/12/syria-doctor-odd-photo-assad" target="_hplink">aren't even looking at one another</a>. "Assad [right] appears to have had the edge detail on his hair smoothed out, in contrast to the harsh, overly sharpened edges visible elsewhere on his body," McCoy says. Clenched fists! <em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, new governor of the central city of Hama Anas Abdul-Razzaq Naem, left, is being sworn in in front of Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, July 11, 2011.</em> (AP Photo/SANA)
Apparently, the fountain of youth bubbles somewhere in Damascus, if you believe the Syrian president's face in this official photo. Glossy women's mags would be put to shame by the smoothness of Assad's skin in this snapshot. You won't find a wrinkle or blemish around the whole of this face, save for the area immediately around his eyes. The skin tone and evenness are almost unnerving. Then again, you can see where they stop, a hair to the left of his collar and just above his tie, where a sudden change in color stands out. And it's hard to say if any special effects have enhanced Assad's hairline; at 46-years-old, the Syrian president is likely experiencing some hair loss. Assad also doesn't seem to have been gifted with a strong chin, but thanks to what looks like a nice Photoshop shadow, his jawline is positively Clooney-esque here. Unfortunately, he no longer has an Adam's apple. <em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad takes part of a religious ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammad, at al-Rawda mosque, in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday Feb. 5, 2012.</em> (AP Photo/SANA)
"This referendum is as legit as the tone and texture of my forehead." More importantly, note the possible human being/strange poster on the right side of the photo. It could be a banner, though reasons why a photo of a random guy's back would be prominently featured in election coverage remain murky. The lack of hues/smoothness/undefined vanishing point and depth of field on the poster make it all the more questionable. <em>In this Feb. 26, 2012, file photo provided by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad casts his ballot next to his wife Asma at a polling station in Damascus, Syria, during a referendum on the new constitution. </em>(AP Photo/SANA, File)
Assad's ability to maintain a killer hairline and a flawless complexion at his age, all while juggling the stress of a crackdown that has left at least <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/syria-crisis-death-toll-17000_n_1658708.html" target="_hplink">17,000 dead</a>, by some estimates, is just otherworldly. <em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad prays during a ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammad, at al-Rawda mosque, in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. </em>(AP Photo/SANA)
"Yes, everyone in Syria is happy!" No real funny business seems to be in play in this photo -- just selective imagery at its finest. <em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, waves to his supporters after he attended the prayer of Eid Al Adha, at the al-Nour Mosque in the northern town of Raqqa, Syria, on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011.</em> (AP Photo/SANA)
Fahd Jassem al-Freij and Bashar Assad
This is the latest development in Syrian state images. This photo comes from the alleged <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/19/syrias-bashar-assad-whereabouts_n_1686381.html" target="_hplink">swearing in</a> of Syria's new Defense Minister, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, after his predecessor was killed in a bomb attack on Wednesday. Not quite as bizarre as last year's thousand-yard stare-fest, but still strangely sterile. Again, clenched fists, same stance. The shadows aren't quite as strange as the previous photo, but a couple of things still look fishy. The table seems to head toward the correct vanishing point, but the reflection of the door handle and frame in the floor seems sharply angled. Ostensibly, there's a chandelier behind Assad, per the reflection in the floor behind him, and another somewhere in front, per the highlight on the top-left corner of the door. That's unclear, however, given that there's no highlight on the table. Perhaps the chandelier is just above the camera. And perhaps that cream-colored pillar is just out of frame. The placement seems strange, and the highlight, too, with what you see in the mirror. But who needs mirrors when you've got that floor? You could do your makeup in that floor; and with that lighting and the help of SANA, you'd probably look like a Disney Princess when all is said and done. It probably sounds like gunshots when you walk in heels in that mausoleum. But Assad wouldn't know anything about that. <em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Syria's new Defense Minister, left, is sworn in before Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, July 19, 2012.</em> (AP Photo/SANA)