Assad rejects Turkish suggestion of 'buffer zone' within Syria for refugees

Thursday 30 August 2012 11.26
Bashar al-Assad blamed Turkey for the violence in Syria
Bashar al-Assad blamed Turkey for the violence in Syria

President Bashar al-Assad said talk of a Western-imposed buffer zone on Syrian territory was unrealistic and that the situation in his country was "better".

However, he said more time was needed to win the conflict against rebels trying to overthrow him.

The bloody 17-month-old uprising against Mr Assad, to which he responded with a brutal security force crackdown, has killed more than 18,000 people according to the United Nations.

Turkey has floated the idea of a "safe zone" to be set up for civilians, under foreign protection, as fighting has intensified.

More than 80,000 Syrians have been given shelter in Turkey, which is now scrambling to build new refugee camps.

"I believe that talk about a buffer zone is not practical, even for those countries which are playing a hostile role [against Syria]," Mr Assad said in a recorded interview broadcast on Syria's Addounia television today.

The president said he was speaking from the presidential palace in the capital, in response to rumours over his whereabouts since a July bombing in Damascus that killed a number of close aides.

He insisted that the fight to put down rebels was going well but needed time because of foreign plots against Syria.

"Everyone wants this battle to be completed in days or weeks but this isn't reasonable, because we are in the middle of a regional and international struggle and it needs time to be resolved," he said.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan once cultivated good relations with Mr Assad, calling him "my brother", but turned against him after the Syrian government's violent response to the uprising.

Mr Erdogan is now one of Assad's harshest critics.

The tone of criticism between the two has now become personal and Mr Assad blamed Turkey for the violence.

"Turkey bears direct responsibility for the blood being shed in Syria," he told Addounia. "Will we go backwards because of the ignorance of some Turkish officials?"

The interview with Addounia, a pro-government television channel, appeared to be an effort to address many criticisms or claims by the opposition.

Mr Assad acknowledged there were issues of corruption and criminal behaviour such as looting by officials or members of security forces.

He said every crime would be accounted for, though it would take time due to unrest in the country.

The president, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, ridiculed arguments that it was a fierce security force crackdown that turned the protests that began last March into an armed insurgency.

"In the first week we had martyrs fall from security forces and police," he said. "How did they die then? Were they killed by the shouts of protesters?"

Thousands of soldiers and officers and some high-level officials have defected in protest of the crackdown, including the former prime minister and some ambassadors.

Mr Assad called the defections a form of "self-cleansing" for the country, accusing those who left of being cowards or bribed to defect.

"Sometimes we had information [on defections] and we would discuss it. Some would suggest we stop them. But we said no, stopping them isn't the right thing to do ... let's facilitate their exit," he said.

Rebels, fighting with assault rifles and rockets against Mr Assad's tanks and air power, have called for a no-fly zone.

Yet there is little Western appetite for military action and no prospect of a UN Security Council mandate for such action, as Assad supporters Russia and China would veto any such proposal.

Mr Assad said that while he believed there was a foreign conspiracy against Syria over its resistance to Western power in the region, the real problem came from within.

"Everything that is happening in Syria couldn't happen without certain groups, small but influential, that support foreign agendas, for political or criminal reasons," he said.

"When we no longer have groups like these ... we will be unable to affect the future we want to make for ourselves."

Costello reluctant to support buffer zone proposal

Meanwhile, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs Joe Costello has said Ireland would be reluctant to support the establishment of refugee zones inside Syria's borders.

Mr Costello was speaking after returning from Jordan where he visited the Zaatari refugee camp, which receives Irish aid.

He said the Assad regime was fighting for its life at present, and he does not believe anyone is safe within the country.

Mr Costello described the conditions in Zaatari as tough and said the numbers fleeing Syria were increasing all the time.

He said he would discuss the matter with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov, who is visiting Ireland.

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