Assad welcomes shift in West’s stance on Syrian conflict

Syrian president acknowledges ‘important’ input from Hizbullah

Lebanon’s Hizbullah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem speaks as Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem (centre) and Iran’s minister of culture  Ali Jannati listen during the International Media Conference Against Terrorism in Damascus. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Lebanon’s Hizbullah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem speaks as Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem (centre) and Iran’s minister of culture Ali Jannati listen during the International Media Conference Against Terrorism in Damascus. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

 

Syrian president Bashar al- Assad yesterday welcomed “positive” changes in western attitudes to the conflict in the country – suggesting the United States and its allies now understand they share an interest with his regime in defeating Islamic State-style jihadi terrorism.

He made the comments in his first public speech in a year, a day after a two-day conference in Damascus ended with a call for the international community to brand terrorist groups a common enemy.

The International Media Conference Against Terrorism’s statement, dubbed the Damascus Declaration, also called for countries to be compelled to cut off support for such organisations, and prosecute violators under international law.

By promulgating this declaration, the Syrian government and allies Iran, Russia and Hizbullah are seeking to convince the US-led coalition to make common cause against Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other Sunni extremist groups wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq and mounting attacks in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen and, last week, Turkey.

While the the US and its partners seem to be moving towards co-operation, there remains some way to go before this is achieved. Forthcoming meetings of US secretary of state John Kerry with Gulf leaders and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov could accelerate this process.

This may be why Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem opened the Damascus event by saying it was too early to speak of convening a third Geneva conference with the aim of negotiating a political solution to the conflict that has gripped his country for 4½ years. He said this was what he told visiting UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is set to brief the Security Council on Wednesday.

When making this statement, Mr Muallam was flanked by Iran’s culture minister, Ali Jannati, and deputy Hizbullah leader Sheikh Naim Qassem, whose presence and words sent two messages: Iran’s nuclear deal with the six world powers has not changed Tehran’s support for Syria, while Hizbullah intends to continue to support Syrian forces in the battle against insurgents.

Assad’s regime lost control of the northwestern province of Idlib in March and has suffered losses in the south near the border with Jordan. The regime’s control is now limited to the big population centres of western Syria, including Damascus, Homs, Hama and the Mediterranean coastal region that forms the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Assad’s ally, the Iran- backed Lebanese militia Hizbullah, has been more successful in pushing back IS and al-Nusra Front fighters from the Syrian-Lebanese border.

A source close to Hizbullah told The Irish Times the battle for the strategic resort town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border was “almost over: the insurgents are being allowed to leave without their weapons”. The fall of Zabadani will give the government near total control of the border with Lebanon and enable Damascus to stop the flow of weapons, fighters and funds to the secular Southern Command insurgents who have been battling government forces around Deraa, along the Golan heights and south of the capital.

In his speech yesterday, Assad publicly acknowledged for the first time Hizbullah’s “important” and “effective” assistance.

Assad described his regime’s surrender of two- thirds of the state’s territory as a question of priorities, given its limited resources.

“It was necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to. Concern for our soldiers forces us to let go of some areas. Every inch of Syria is precious. The problem facing the military is not related to planning but to fatigue. It is normal that an army gets tired, but there’s a difference between fatigue and defeat,” he said.

Russian security expert Vladimir Yevseev, who also addressed the Damascus terrorism conference, told The Irish Times: “Russia will continue to support Syria with arms.” – (Additional reporting: the Guardian)

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