x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkey will pay for supporting Syrian rebels, says Assad

The Syrian president calls the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “bigoted” and accuses Ankara of allowing terrorists to cross into Syria to attack the army and Syrian civilians.

ISTANBUL // Bashar Al Assad told Turkey it will pay a heavy price for backing rebels fighting to oust him, accusing it of harbouring “terrorists” along its border who would soon turn against their hosts.

The Syrian president called the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “bigoted” and said Ankara was allowing terrorists to cross into Syria to attack the army and Syrian civilians.

“It is not possible to put terrorism in your pocket and use it as a card because it is like a scorpion which won’t hesitate to sting you at the first opportunity,” Mr Al Assad said, according to a transcript from the Turkish broadcaster Halk TV, which is close to Turkey’s opposition.

Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometre border with Syria and has Nato’s second largest deployable armed forces, is one of Mr Al Assad’s fiercest critics and a staunch supporter of the opposition, although it denies arming the rebels.

It shelters about a quarter of the 2 million people who have fled Syria and has often seen the conflict spill across its frontier, responding in kind when mortars and shells fired from Syria have hit its soil.

It has also allowed rebel fighters to cross in and out of Syria but has grown alarmed, along with Western allies opposed to Mr Al Assad, by divisions among their ranks and the deepening influence of radical Islamists in Syria.

Last month, the Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seized Azaz, about 5 kilometres from the border with Turkey, and has repeatedly clashed with the Free Syrian Army-aligned Northern Storm brigade since then.

“Right now, Syria is headed for a sectarian war,” Mr Erdogan said in an interview on Turkish television late on Thursday.

“This is the danger we are facing.”

Turkey has bolstered its defences and sent additional troops to the border with Syria in recent weeks and its parliament voted on Thursday to extend by a year a mandate authorising a military deployment to Syria if needed.

Mr Al Assad accused Mr Erdogan, whose party has its roots in conservative Islamist politics, of a sectarian agenda.

“Before the crisis, Erdogan had never mentioned reforms or democracy, he was never interested in these issues ... Erdogan only wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to return to Syria, that was his main and core aim,” he said.

Mr Erdogan’s government strongly denies any such agenda.

His aides point to his cultivation of good relations with Mr Al Assad for years before the conflict and say Turkey does not see Syria’s Sunnis and its Alawite sect, an Shiite offshoot to which Mr Al Assad belongs, as fixed blocs.

Mr Al Assad said he had not yet decided whether to run in presidential elections next year because the situation on the ground was changing rapidly, adding that he would only put himself forward if Syrians wanted him to. The picture will become clearer in the next four to five months, Mr Al Assad said.

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died since the uprising began in March 2011 and has been notified of at least 14 chemical attacks.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution last week that demands the eradication of Syria’s chemical weapons and endorses a plan for a political transition in Syria agreed on at an international conference in Geneva last year. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said after the vote that major powers hoped to hold a second peace conference on Syria in mid-November in Geneva.

In Damascus, a team of international weapons experts left their hotel early yesterday, heading out on their fourth day of work in the country. Their mission is to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by November 1 and to destroy Mr Al Assad’s entire stockpile by the middle of next year.

Their mission stems from the deadly August 21 attack on opposition-held Damascus suburbs in which the UN has determined the nerve agent sarin was used.

In his interview, Mr Al Assad again denied his forces had used chemical weapons and blamed such attacks on the rebels. Asked whether he expected the Geneva process to accelerate if Syria handed over its chemical weapons, Mr Al Assad said he saw no link.

“Practically these issues are not related. Geneva II is about Syria’s own domestic political process and cutting neighbouring countries’ weapons and financial support to terrorists.”

Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops yesterday shelled and tried to storm the village of Samadaniyeh near the Golan Heights and brought in reinforcements.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks in Samadaniyeh.

* Reuters with additional reporting by the Associated Press