x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Syrian opposition berates Assad over 'isolation from reality'

Syrian National Council calls president 'insane' and 'blind to the devastation he has wreaked'. Phil Sands reports

ISTANBUL // Syria's main opposition group yesterday criticised the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, after he warned Europe and the United States they would "pay a heavy price" for supporting his opponents.

Mr Al Assad appealed to fears in the West by saying that hardline militants who are active in the rebellion against his regime were likely to turn their gaze westward.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which leads the opposition to Assad's rule, said the president's interview with a pro-regime television station on Wednesday underscored "his isolation from reality and blindness to the corruption, and the devastation and bloodshed that he has wreaked".

Mr Al Assad's "approach is like that of tyrants before him", said the SNC, pointing to "his claims of control and denial of the alternative, and the absence of reality and proposal of solutions that bear no relation to the crises".

"The man is completely delusional, he is insane and Syria will not be able to breath until he is gone," said one opposition figure.

In the interview with Al Ikhbariya, Mr Al Assad likened the current situation in Syria to Cold War proxy conflicts.

Having vanquished the Soviet Union in the 1980s with the help of money from the US and Gulf states and advanced American weapons, militants led by Osama bin Laden later struck at the US with devastating consequences on September 11, 2001.

"The West has paid heavily for funding Al Qaeda in its early stages. Today it is doing the same in Syria, Libya and other places, and will pay a heavy price in the heart of Europe and the United States," he said in an hour-long interview broadcast on Wednesday.

Concern about the rising power of extremist militant groups in Syria was underlined last week when Jabhat Al Nusra, an Islamist militant group, issued a public declaration of allegiance to Ayman Al Zawahiri, who took over as head of Al Qaeda after bin Laden was killed by US troops in May 2011.

Syrian opposition figures, who have held a series of meetings in Istanbul this week, have struggled to come to terms with the declaration, seeking to distance themselves from Al Qaeda without swearing off one of the most effective forces in the fight against Mr Al Assad.

Mixed up in the rise of militancy are growing concerns about sectarianism, pitting Syria's majority Sunni Muslims against Alawites and other religious minority groups.

Nonetheless, the Syrian president, an Alawite, insisted sectarian tensions were, in fact, being reduced.

"We have to bet on the awareness of the people, and the Syrian people proved over the past two years that they're aware," he said. "I can say, without exaggeration, that sectarianism is less pronounced in Syria now than at the beginning of this conflict."

Mr Al Assad issued his starkest warning to Jordan, Syria's southern neighbour. According to western and regional diplomats, Jordan has been involved in stepping up support for more moderate, nationalist factions among the rebels, in part as a counterbalance to hardline groups.

"The fire will not stop at our border and everybody knows that Jordan is exposed as Syria is," he said.

Damascus had dispatched an envoy to Amman in recent weeks to demand answers, Mr Al Assad said, only to be told the claims were baseless.

"It's not possible to believe that thousands enter Syria with their gear [from Jordan] when Jordan is able to stop or arrest a single person carrying a simple weapon for resistance in Palestine," Mr Al Assad said.

US troops have been working with Jordanian forces in border regions over fears that the violence might spill over from Syria into the kingdom.

Since the uprising against his rule began peacefully in March 2011, Mr Al Assad has claimed it was nothing more than a foreign conspiracy to unseat him. An early crackdown by his security forces, who shot hundreds of unarmed protesters with impunity, led his opponents to take up arms.

The conflict has since spiralled out of control, with government forces laying waste to towns and villages in areas sympathetic to the rebels, who are increasingly turning to car bombs and mortar fire in their own assaults against government zones.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.

Mr Al Assad has remained defiant and showed no sign in the interview that his attitude had changed. He repeated his assessment that the conflict in Syria was an extension of western colonialism.

psands@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse

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