Assad says Israel trying to destabilise Syria

Sunday 03 February 2013 22.17
Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday
Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused Israel of trying to destabilise his country by attacking a military research base outside Damascus last week.

He said Syria was able to confront "current threats ...and aggression", state media said.

Mr Assad made the remarks in a meeting with Saeed Jalili, Iran's national security council secretary, in the Syrian capital.

It was his first reported response to the attack.

State news agency SANA quoted Mr Jalili as reaffirming Tehran's "full support for the Syrian people ... facing the Zionist aggression, and its continued coordination to confront the conspiracies and foreign projects".

The Syrian president, Shia Iran's closest Arab ally, is battling a 22-month-old uprising in which 60,000 people have been killed.

Mr Assad says the rebels are Islamist terrorists funded and armed by Turkey and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states.

Neighbouring Israel has said it might have to intervene to prevent Syrian chemical or advanced weapons falling into the hands of militant groups, including Lebanon's Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Syria said the target was a military research centre northwest of Damascus.

Meanwhile, Syria's opposition leader flew back to his Cairo headquarters from Germany today after talks with representatives of Russia and Iran, Mr Assad's main backers.

The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers, and US Vice President Joe Biden, portrayed Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib's new willingness to talk with the Assad regime as a major step towards resolving the two-year-old war.

"If we want to stop the bloodshed we cannot continue putting the blame on one side or the other," Iran's Ali Akbar Salehi said.

He added that he was ready to keep talking to the opposition.

"This is a very important step. Especially because the coalition was created on the basis of categorical rejection of any talks with the regime," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russia's Itar Tass news agency.

Russia has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing Mr Assad out or pressuring him to end a civil war in which more than 60,000 people have died.

But it has also tried to distance itself from Mr Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Syrian state media said Mr Assad received a senior Iranian official and told him Syria could withstand "threats ... and aggression" like an air attack on a military base last week, which his government has blamed on Israel.

Politicians from the US, Europe and the Middle East at the Munich Security Conference praised Mr Alkhatib's "courage".

But the moderate Islamist preacher was likely to face sharp criticism from the exiled leadership back in Cairo.

Mr Alkhatib has put his leadership on the line by saying he would be willing to talk to representatives of the Assad regime on condition they release 150,000 prisoners and issue passports to the tens of thousands of displaced people who have fled to neighbouring countries but do not have documents.

"He has a created a political firestorm. Meeting the Iranian foreign minister was totally unnecessary because it is useless.

“Iran backs Assad to the hilt and he might as well have met with the Syrian foreign minister," said one of Mr Alkhatib's colleagues on the 12-member politburo of the Syrian National Coalition.

Mr Alkhatib, whose family are custodians of the Umayyad Mosque in the historic centre of Damascus, is seen as a bulwark against Salafist forces, who are a main player in the armed opposition.

He was chosen as the head of the Coalition in Qatar last year, with crucial backing from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Syrian opposition member, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to comments by Mr Salehi and Mr Lavrov after the meeting with Mr Alkhatib as evidence that they had not changed their positions and still backed Mr Assad.

Mr Salehi told the Munich conference where the round of talks took place that the solution was to hold elections in Syria - making no mention of Assad having to leave the country.

Firm opposition backers like Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani and US Republican Senator John McCain voiced frustration in Munich at the international community's reluctance to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

"We consider the UN Security Council directly responsible for the continuing tragedy of the Syrian people, the thousands of lives that were lost, the blood that was spilled and is still flowing at the hands of the regime's forces," said Mr al-Thani.

Russia played down the significance of the discussions in Munich, with one diplomatic source calling the talks between Mr Lavrov and Mr Alkhatib "simply routine meetings".

"We have presented our views when Minister Lavrov meet Alkhatib, we have noted his comments that there is still a chance for dialogue with Syrian government. That is something we have called for," said the Russian source.

"To what extent is that realistic, that's a different matter and there are doubts about that," said the source.

One source in Mr Khatib's delegation said the offer of dialogue would find an echo among Syrians opposed to Mr Assad who have not taken up arms "and want to get rid of him with the minimum bloodshed".

Fawaz Tello, a veteran Syrian opposition campaigner based in Berlin, said Mr Alkhatib had made "a calculated political manoeuvre to embarrass Assad".

"But it is an incomplete initiative and it will probably fizzle out," Mr Tello told Reuters.

"The Assad regime cannot implement any item in the series of initiatives we have seen lately because it would simply fall."

Russia and Iran were already beginning to use Mr Alkhatib's initiative negatively, he said, while "the regime and its allies will only treat Alkhatib's meetings as an additional opportunity to smash the rebellion or weaken it".

Asked about the risk of his strategy being seen as a sign of weakness in the opposition or frustration at the Free Syrian Army's gains, Mr Alkhatib told Reuters in Munich: "The fighters have high morale and they are making daily advances."

Keywords: syria, iran