BEIRUT/WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD: Russia and Iran renewed their support for the Syrian government in a flurry of calls Sunday, saying last week’s U.S. missile strike violated Syrian sovereignty but failed to boost the morale of “terror groups” in Syria.
In a phone call with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the strike Friday a “blatant violation” of Syrian sovereignty, Syrian state media reported. Assad accused the U.S. of trying to boost the morale of “terror groups” in Syria. The government refers to all those fighting against it as terrorists.
A statement carried on the military media arm of Hezbollah condemned the American strike in much stronger language, saying it had “crossed red lines” and vowing to “reply with force” to any future aggression “in a variety of ways.”
The statement was made in the name of a previously unheard of “shared operations room” between Russia, Iran and allied forces. There was no comment from Russia or Iran about the statement.
The Kremlin said in a statement Rouhani also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone.
“Both sides noted the inadmissibility of aggressive U.S. actions against a sovereign state in violation of international law,” the statement said. “Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani spoke in favor of an objective, unbiased investigation of all the circumstances of the chemical weapons incident on April 4 in the Syrian province of Idlib.”
Rouhani said the U.S. strike would not affect Iran’s Syria policy, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran would not withdraw in the face of such aggressions.
“What the Americans did is a strategic mistake and offense. They are repeating offense of their predecessors,” Khamenei was quoted as saying by the IRNA news agency.
The U.S. says the strike was in response to a nerve gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun last week, widely blamed on government forces. The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons.
The gas attack has piled pressure on Assad. Saturday, Iraq’s influential Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr called on Assad to “take a historic heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed.
Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is the first Iraqi Shiite political leader to urge Assad to step down.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government have maintained good relations with the Syrian government throughout the Syrian civil war. Sadr is the only Iraqi Shiite leader to keep some distance from Iran, a main backer of Assad along with Russia. “I think it would be fair for President Bashar Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism ... and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late,” Sadr said in a statement.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the strikes signaled an overhaul of American policy, saying its priority remained to defeat Daesh (ISIS) militants in the Middle East. The strike was the first time American forces targeted a Syrian government installation in the course of the war. U.S. Treasury officials say they are preparing sanctions in response to the chemical weapons attack, though the Syrian government is already buried under U.S. and EU sanctions.
Just days before the chemical attack, U.S. envoy to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Tillerson both had indicated that removing Assad from power was no longer a U.S. priority.
But in an interview aired Sunday Haley suggested there has been a shift in U.S. thinking.
“In no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”On the ground in Syria, meanwhile, Daesh militants launched two suicide attacks on U.S.-backed Syrian rebels near the border with Iraq, leaving at least 12 dead in the fighting and many wounded, rebels sources said Sunday.
An attack at midnight on a heavily defended base near the Al-Tanf border crossing involved at least one explosive-laden vehicle that rammed an entrance to the base. At least two U.S.-backed rebels were killed and scores wounded, a rebel source said.
The militants also staged a suicide attack on a convoy of rebel fighters from the Western-backed Ossoud al-Sharqiya rebel group, who had sent reinforcements from their outpost near the Rukban refugee camp further southwest. Two of the fighters in the convoy were killed in the ambush.
Daesh “staged a suicide attack and there were clashes inside Al-Tanf. Two were killed and several injured. They also attacked our convoy but it’s over and matters are under control,” said a senior rebel source from Ossoud al-Sharqiya who requested anonymity.
U.S.-led coalition planes were involved in the operation to track down the militants who staged the hit-and-run attack and apparently fled, a rebel commander involved in the operation said.
On the other side of the border, Iraqi forces foiled a double suicide car bomb attack by Daesh on a remote border crossing with Syria, officers and local officials said.