BEIRUT/MOSCOW: Syria’s army and its allies will keep fighting in Syria after the battle ends in Deir al-Zor province, where Daesh (ISIS) has its last significant stronghold, President Bashar Assad said Tuesday.
He also indicated that he might take the war to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which controls more than a quarter of Syria, by saying the war targeted those who seek to “divide and weaken states.”
His comments came after a meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“The victories against terrorist organizations, starting in Aleppo and not ending in Deir al-Zor, formed a critical strike that foiled partition projects and terrorist goals,” Assad’s office quoted him as saying.
Assad regards all the groups fighting against the Syrian state as terrorist groups.
The Syrian army, with Russian air power and Iran-backed fighters, is waging an offensive against Daesh in the eastern Deir al-Zor province, mostly on the west banks of the Euphrates River.
The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, is also battling Daesh militants in Deir al-Zor.
Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes and special forces, the SDF has focused on territory east of the river, which bisects the oil-rich province.
Assad and Velayati vowed to defend their national interests amid rising regional tensions.
The escalation “by some regional and Western nations” against Iran is related to battlefield defeats Syrian insurgents suffered, Assad and Velayati were quoted as saying by state-run SANA news agency.
Velayati Friday said Syrian army forces would soon advance to take Raqqa city from the SDF and accused the United States of seeking to divide Syria by stationing its forces east of the Euphrates.
“We will witness in the near future the advance of government and popular forces in Syria and east of the Euphrates, and the liberation of Raqqa city,” he said in televised comments on a visit to Beirut.
Meanwhile, Russia Tuesday denied postponing a Syria peace conference while not confirming an earlier announced date of Nov. 18, after the plan gained a cool reception from rebel backer Turkey and its Western allies.
“This congress is being prepared now,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters, adding that “no one has postponed it because the date of the congress has not been officially announced.”
Russia pledged during talks in Kazakhstan last week to bring the Syrian regime and its opponents together for a “congress” to push peace efforts in the city of Sochi on Nov. 18.
Meanwhile Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the Kremlin had told Ankara it was postponing the event.
Lavrov, in Russia’s first public reaction since then, said Moscow was in touch with Turkey, Iran, the Gulf nations and other countries to determine the conference’s agenda and date.
He said Moscow was also in contact with the Syrian government and a range of opposition forces as well as the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.
The Russian foreign minister said some opposition groups had refused to hold negotiations with Assad’s government, but added that the “feedback is rather positive.”
On the ground, meanwhile, shelling by the Syrian regime on a rebel-held Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus killed seven civilians, while retaliatory fire killed three people, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said.
Six civilians, including two children, were killed by shelling on Saqba, the Observatory said. Another child was killed in the nearby town of Douma, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Observatory.
A total of 18 people were also wounded in the besieged area, he added. Shelling by the rebels on central Damascus later killed three people, including at least two civilians, and wounded at least 15, Abdel-Rahman said.
“The shelling was in response to the attack on Ghouta,” he added.
A “de-escalation” zone deal agreed by regime allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey has been in place in Eastern Ghouta since July, but it has been repeatedly violated.