DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad says his forces are advancing on "almost" all fronts thanks to Russian airstrikes that began nearly two months ago and have tipped the balance in his favor in some parts of the country.
In remarks published Sunday, Assad told China's Phoenix Television that the Russians depend on Syrian ground forces and "cooperate with us." He added that Syrian troops had achieved victories in some areas before the strikes began but "could not be present everywhere in Syria."
Russia, which has conducted an air campaign in Syria since Sept. 30, sharply raised its intensity in recent days on President Vladimir Putin's orders after Moscow said it had confirmed that a bomb brought down a Russian plane over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Following the participation of Russian air force in fighting terrorism, the situation improved well. I can say that the army now is advancing almost on every front," Assad said in the interview, which was also carried by Syrian state media.
Assad said the Russian airstrikes are more effective than those of the U.S.-led coalition because Moscow is coordinating with his government, saying "you cannot fight terrorism with airstrikes alone."
Syrian troops have captured dozens of villages in northern and western Syria since the Russian airstrikes began. Their biggest victory so far has been lifting a three-year siege imposed on the military air base of Kweiras by extremist groups in the northern province of Aleppo.
The Russian strikes have not only targeted the Islamic State group, but also Syrian insurgents battling to overthrow Assad, including some Western-backed groups.
Asked if he is going to run for president again if early elections are held, Assad said: "It is my right but it is early to say whether I will run or not." He added that "I will not say that I will not run if I see that this is needed."
A peace plan agreed to last weekend by 17 nations meeting in Vienna says nothing about Assad's future, but states that "free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months."
To clarify the timeline, the U.S. State Department said last week that the clock starts once Assad's representatives and opposition figures begin talks on a constitution. The vote would determine a new parliament, though not necessarily a new president.
More than 250,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria's 2011 uprising, which began as a series of mostly peaceful protests but escalated into an armed revolt against Assad after a harsh government crackdown. Syrian rebels have demanded that Assad step down as part of any agreement to end the fighting.
On Sunday, a motorcycle rigged with explosives blew up in the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad near the Turkish border, killing at least two people and wounding more than 20, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees. The two groups track Syria's civil war based on reports from activists inside the country.
Kurdish fighters captured Tal Abyad from IS militants in July.
The Observatory said Sunday that airstrikes believed to be carried out by Russian warplanes have struck near oil fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. Moscow last week announced the targeting of oil facilities and tanker trucks to try and deprive IS of one of its main sources of income.
In the central province of Hama, meanwhile, the militant Jund al-Aqsa group handed over the bodies of 30 Syrian soldiers in exchange for six female prisoners held by Syrian authorities, according to the Observatory and opposition activist Hadi Abdallah.
Abdallah posted a video on his Facebook page showing the exchange, which was carried out by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Mroue reported from Beirut.