THU 21 - 6 - 2018
Jun 1, 2018
The Daily Star
Assad threatens to attack area held by Kurds
BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened to attack a region held by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, saying in an interview broadcast on Russia Today channel Thursday that American troops should leave the country.
The remarks reflect that despite pressure on multiple fronts, Assad is seeking to consolidate control after seven years of civil war. Large patches of territory remain beyond his control, including the expansive region north of the Euphrates River that is administered by the Syrian Kurds.
Speaking to the Russian channel, Assad said he has opened the door to negotiations with the Kurdish-run administration while also preparing to “liberate by force.”
Forces loyal to Assad and the Syrian Kurds have clashed sporadically over the eastern oil province of Deir al-Zor. Last year, they led rival campaigns against Daesh (ISIS), and maintained a protracted front against each other along the Euphrates.
The United States, which supports the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, operates air bases and outposts in the Kurdish-administered region.
“The Americans should leave,” Assad said. “Somehow, they are going to leave.”
The Syrian president is also under pressure from Israel over growing Iranian influence in Syria. Israel in recent months ramped up its strikes on Hezbollah and Iranian positions and weapons depots inside Syria, sparking fears of a regional war.
In the TV interview, Assad maintained there are no Iranian troops in Syria, only Iranian officers advising the Syrian army. He denied reports that Iranians have been killed in Israeli strikes.
“Actually, we had tens of Syrian martyrs and wounded soldiers.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 68 Iranian and pro-Iranian forces have been killed in Israeli strikes since April. Assad said Israeli strikes destroyed a “big part” of Syrian air defenses, but added they have been rebuilt, “stronger than before, thanks to Russian support.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his government won’t accept a permanent Iranian presence anywhere in Syria.
The Kremlin said Thursday that President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu discussed the situation in Syria in a phone call.
It said the conversation focused on “some aspects of the Syrian settlement,” which it didn’t specify, following up on the two leaders’ talks in Moscow earlier this month.
Also Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Moscow for talks focusing on Syria. Lieberman’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, said the two would discuss the situation in southwestern Syria, along its border with Israel and a reduction in Iranian presence in the country.
The Syrian government’s plans to recapture rebel-held parts of the region have raised Israeli concerns that its backers – Iran and Hezbollah – could take up positions along the frontier.
Russian news reports said Moscow wants to cut a deal that would see Russian military police deployed to areas near Israel. The agreement envisages Iranian forces pulling out from the entire area and Syrian rebels there surrendering heavy weapons.
The Observatory said Thursday that Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters are preparing to withdraw from southern Syria, namely the regions of Deraa and Qunaitra near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.A Syria-based official with the Iran-led axis of resistance, however, denied the report saying it is “untrue.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, gave no further details.
The U.S. and Russia, while backing rival sides in Syria’s war, have coordinated their maneuvers in Syria and largely avoided direct confrontation.
But in February, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes killed several Russian private contractors that appeared to be advancing with pro-government forces on a position held by Syrian Kurdish forces in Deir al-Zor. In the interview, Assad said U.S. and Russian forces would have come in direct conflict long ago in Syria if it were not for Russia’s prudence and judgment.
Asked about U.S. President Donald Trump comments in which he described the Syrian leader as “Animal Assad,” and asked if he has a nickname for the American president, Assad said: “This is not my language, so, I cannot use similar language. This is his language. It represents him, and I think there is a very known principle, that what you say is what you are.”
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