x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Morsi: History is not on Assad's side

Mohammed Morsi addressed the Arab League yesterday and signalled that Egypt is ready to reclaim its position as a leader of the Arab world.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad came under withering regional criticism yesterday, as Turkey's prime minister accused him of creating a "terrorist state" and Egypt's president warned him to learn from "recent history" before it is too late.

The admonitions by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mohammed Morsi come after Syrian forces shelled rebel-controlled zones of Aleppo before dawn, killing at least 30 people, among them seven children, according to activists.

"I tell the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to halt the bloodshed," Mr Morsi said in his speech at the Arab League's Cairo headquarters yesterday. "Don't listen to the voices that tempt you to stay because you will not be there for much longer.

"It's too late to talk about reform, this is the time for change. The Syrian regime must learn from recent history," he said.

Egypt's president said a quartet of states - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt - would meet to discuss the Syrian crisis. "The quartet which Egypt has called for will meet now," he told Arab foreign ministers, without giving details. An Egyptian delegate said the president's comments meant the four states were talking about what action could be taken but the formal formation of the quartet was still under discussion. He said no date had been set for its representatives to meet.

Turkey's premier yesterday also criticised Syria - a former ally.

"The regime in Syria has become a terrorist state," Mr Erdogan told his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara. "Syria is not an ordinary country to us. We do not have the luxury to remain indifferent to what's happening there." The Turkish premier again accused the Syrian government of committing "mass murders" against its own people and described Mr Al Assad as being "up to his neck in blood".

Despite the condemnation, Syria appears poised for an increasingly drawn-out conflict.

Regime forces fought rebels on multiple fronts yesterday as peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi described the death toll as "staggering" and destruction "catastrophic". In addition to the bombardment of Aleppo, fighting was also reported in Deir Ezzor city, Homs and Damascus.

Rebels meanwhile attacked Hamdan military airport near Albu Kamal in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Having failed to persuade the international community to impose a no-fly zone over the country, the rebel Free Syrian Army has increasingly targeted airports used by regime attack helicopters and warplanes. "Fighting has been going on for hours inside Hamdan airport between soldiers and rebels, who have taken over large sections of the site," the SOHR director Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that at least six rebels died in the assault.

Rebels in the north of the country said yesterday that they had shot down a fighter jet near Abu Thuhur airbase on Tuesday using a heavy machine-gun. "They brought it down as it was taking off from the airport using 14.5 millimetre anti-aircraft machineguns," said Abu Majad, a spokesman from the rebel Ahrar Al Sham brigade.

A rebel general said on yesterday that the Free Syria Army (FSA) would soon adopt changes aimed at overcoming divisions and addressing the growing number of militias fighting on its behalf. Following talks due to end in about 10 days, the FSA would go by the name of the Syrian National Army, General Mustafa Al Sheikh, the head of the military council grouping rebel chiefs, told AFP. "After a long period, we must restructure the army because we fear the proliferation of militias in Syria and want to preserve the country's future," he said.

Meanwhile Iraq asked Washington for proof of US accusations that Baghdad was allowing Iran to use its air space to deliver weapons to Syria.

American senators visiting Iraq warned the Baghdad government yesterday that it risked damaging relations with the US if it is allowing Iran to fly over its airspace to deliver weapons to Syria. An Iraqi government spokesman responded by saying Iran has told Baghdad the flights to Syria are only delivering humanitarian aid.

Also on the diplomatic front, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sharply criticised the UN Security Council's "paralysis" on Syria yesterday, warning it has hurt both the Syrian people and the council's own credibility. Addressing the UN General Assembly on its responsibility to protect civilian populations from genocide and war crimes, Mr Ban said: "The council's paralysis does the Syrian people harm. It also damages its own credibility."

Mr Morsi, who has taken a strong stance against the Al Assad regime, again signalled that Egypt is ready to reclaim its position as a leader of the Arab world after what the Egyptian president called an "unfortunate" absence.

"We return from this marginalisation, where we have lived in recent decades," Mr Morsi said.

He outlined his foreign policy objectives, saying Egypt would "regain its natural place in the Arab world, contributing to help its people build a bright Arab future".

"We must complete each other and be able to reform the mechanisms of Arab cooperation to revive, in all of us, the concept of Arab unity," he said. "If the Arabs rise, the whole world will rise."


Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters