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Assad says US welcome to join fight against “terrorism”

But Syrian president dismisses US president Donald Trump's proposal for civilian 'safe zones' inside Syria.
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad speaks to Belgian media in Damascus on February 6, 2017. Sana / EPA
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad speaks to Belgian media in Damascus on February 6, 2017. Sana / EPA

BEIRUT // Syrian president Bashar Al Assad said in an interview released on Friday that the United States is welcome to join the battle against “terrorists” in Syria – as long as it is in cooperation with his government and respects the country’s sovereignty.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Mr Al Assad said he had had no communication – neither direct nor indirect – with president Donald Trump or any official from the new administration in Washington.

But in what appeared to a gesture towards the new man in the White House, the Syrian leader said he welcomed Mr Trump’s declaration that he will make it a priority to fight terrorism – a goal Mr Al Assad said he also shares.

“We agree about this priority,” Mr Al Assad said. “That’s our position in Syria, the priority is to fight terrorism.”

However, in the eyes of the Assad government, all armed opposition – including the US -backed rebels – are labelled “terrorists”.

In the interview, which was conducted in English, Mr Al Assad made no reference to the US-led international coalition, which has been targeting ISIL and Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria with air strikes since September 2014. The US also has advisers in Syria along with predominantly Kurdish fighters north of the country who are fighting against the Islamic State.

“If you want to start genuinely, as United States ... it must be through the Syrian government,” Mr Al Assad said. “We are here, we are the Syrians, we own this country as Syrians, nobody else, nobody would understand it like us. “So, you cannot defeat the terrorism without cooperation with the people and the government.”

The Syrian government has always blamed the US for backing opposition fighters trying to remove Mr Al Assad from power. The rebels formed a serious threat to the Syrian leader until 2015, when Russia joined the war on the side of Mr Al Assad’s forces and turned the balance of power in his favour.

“We invited the Russians, and the Russians were genuine regarding this issue. If the Americans are genuine, of course they are welcome, like any other country that wants to defeat and to fight with the terrorists. Of course, with no hesitation we can say that,” Mr Al Assad said.

But when asked if he wanted American troops to come to Syria to help with the fight against ISIL, he said that sending troops was not enough without a genuine political position on respecting Syria’s sovereignty and unity.

“All these factors would lead to trust, where you can send your troops. That’s what happened with the Russians; they didn’t only send their troops,” he said.

Mr Al Assad would not comment on Mr Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US, calling it an “American sovereignty” issue.

But he appeared to offer some veiled support at last, saying that there are “definitely terrorists” among the millions of Syrians seeking refuge in the West. “Those terrorists in Syria holding machine guns or killing people, they are peaceful refugees in Europe or in the West,” he said.

Their numbers did not have to be large, he added. “You don’t need a significant number of terrorists to commit atrocities.”

He also rejected an initiative that calls for creating “safe zones” in Syria for refugees, an idea also been floated by Mr Trump as a substitute for resettling Syrian refugees in the US and elsewhere.

“Safe zones for Syrians could only happen when you have stability and security,” Mr Al Assad said. “It’s much more practical and less costly to have stability than to create safe zones. It’s not a realistic idea at all.”

In other developments on Friday, the Kremlin said that Russia and Turkey have agreed to improve coordination in Syria to prevent further friendly fire incidents after a Russian air raid killed three Turkish soldiers and wounded 11 the day before.

* Associated Press

Updated: February 10, 2017 04:00 AM

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