x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syria flexes military muscles in exercises

Syria began large-scale military exercises yesterday to simulate defending the country against outside "aggression".

DAMASCUS, Syria // In a show of force, Syria began large-scale military exercises yesterday to simulate defending the country against outside "aggression".

Meanwhile, Damascus's staunch ally, Iran, warned of a "catastrophe" in the region if no political solution to the 16-month Syrian conflict is found.

Tehran has stood by President Bashar Al Assad's regime throughout the revolt against his rule, despite a growing chorus of international condemnation. The bloodshed has accelerated diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis, and spurred some in the Syrian opposition to urge the West to intervene militarily to stop a conflict that activists say has left more than 14,000 people dead.

Iran's deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, dismissed talk of foreign intervention, saying "nobody can imagine a military attack against Syria". He added: "We believe it will not happen. If it happens, Syria will defend itself and will not need help from Iran."

The joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for Syria, Kofi Annan, the architect of an international plan to end the crisis, arrived in Damascus yesterday after acknowledging in an interview published on Saturday that the international community's efforts to find a political solution to the escalating violence in Syria have failed.

Mr Annan was to meet Mr Al Assad today, said his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.

The West is reluctant to intervene in Syria, in part because unlike the military intervention that helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, the Syrian conflict has the potential to quickly escalate. Damascus has a web of allegiances to powerful forces including Iran and Lebanon's Hizbollah, and there are concerns that a military campaign could pull them into a wider conflict.

"Some tried to portray the Syrian president as just another aggressor. Some tried to impose a no-fly zone. We must say that Syria is different from Libya," Mr Abdollahian said. He declined to elaborate, but added: "There will be a catastrophe in the region, if there's no political solution there."

Any outside intervention would also likely face strong opposition from another Syrian ally, Russia, as well as China, who have already shielded Damascus from diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the regime.

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, Mr Abdollahian dismissed questions about whether Iran would host Mr Al Assad if he were to leave Syria, saying the issue of Mr Al Assad fleeing his country and seeking refuge elsewhere is "a joke".

"He is following up on the situation in Syria. The Syrian people will decide their fate until another president is elected in 2014," he said.

Mr Al Assad said in comments published yesterday that he would not step down "in the face of national challenges". He spoke in an interview on German public television service ARD, which released his comments translated into German before the broadcast.

He also accused the United States of fuelling the revolt against him by partnering with "terrorists ... with weapons, money or public and political support at the United Nations".

The regime frequently uses the term "terrorists" to refer to Syrians seeking to topple Mr Al Assad.

The Syrian military manoeuvres began on Saturday with naval forces in a scenario where they repelled an attack from the sea, and will include air and ground forces over the next few days, the state-run Sana news agency said. State TV broadcast footage of missiles being fired from launch vehicles and warships - an apparent warning to other countries not to intervene in the country's crisis.

The Syrian defence minister, Dawood Rajiha, attended the manoeuvres and praised the "exceptional performance" of the naval forces, which showed "a high level of combat training and ability to defend Syria's shores against any possible aggression".

Mr Annan said on Saturday that the international community's efforts to find a political solution to the escalating violence in Syria have failed. "The evidence shows that we have not succeeded," he told the French daily, Le Monde.

His six-point peace plan was to begin with a ceasefire in mid-April between government forces and rebels seeking to topple Mr Al Assad. But the truce never took hold.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said yesterday that time is running out on Syrian peace hopes and warned that the Syrian state could collapse.

Speaking in Japan, Ms Clinton said Mr Annan's acknowledgement that his peace plan was failing "should be a wake-up call for everyone".

She said last month was the deadliest for the Syrian people since the revolt began in March 2011, but added that the opposition was "getting more effective in defence of themselves and going on the offensive against the Syrian military".