Syrian President Bashar Assad accused Israel of supporting “terrorists” fighting against the Syrian regime as part of an ongoing war between the two countries.
In an interview with a Croatian newspaper published in English Thursday by Syria’s official news agency SANA, Assad said that while the Israeli and Syrian armies may not be fighting each other directly, what he called Israel’s support for groups battling his regime amounts to a war between them.
“Concern about a war is unrealistic, because the reality is that we are living this war. But as for calling it a Syrian-Israeli war, you can assume in any case that these terrorists are fighting for Israel,” he said.
“It is a war that has taken a new form and uses new instruments,” he said. “Even if they are not a regular Israeli army, they are still fighting for Israel,” he added.
Assad and other Syrian officials have repeatedly accused Israel of working in tandem with rebel groups, pointing to reported strikes on regime targets. Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian war, though it says it has carried out air strikes to stop weapons transfers to Hezbollah and has hit regime positions in response to mortars and small-arms fire that stray over the border, no matter the source.
Nonetheless, Assad said Israel is working in tandem with the United States, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, as they “all share the same objective” of the defeat of the Syrian dictator.
“Practically, our victory over the terrorists is a victory over all those states put together. That’s why Israel is doing its best to support these terrorists in every place the Syrian Army advances,” he said.
Last month, Assad also claimed that Israel was supporting “terrorists” fighting against the Syrian regime, “whether logistically, or through direct raids on our army.”
Although Israel has remained largely mum over whether it provides support for rebel groups in Syria, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said in 2015 that the Jewish state has provided humanitarian aid to fighters helping to advance its goals.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has sought to refrain from getting directly involved in the conflict, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted in April 2016 for the first time that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hezbollah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel and is now battling alongside the Damascus regime.
Last month, Syria fired surface-to-air missiles at Israeli fighter jets returning to Israel after carrying out an airstrike on a weapons convoy destined for Hezbollah.
One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow missile defense battery, military officials said, in the first reported use of the advanced system.
It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.
In the interview published Thursday, Assad did not address the chemical weapons attack on the rebel held village of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria on Tuesday, in which at least 72 people were killed, among them 20 children.
The US and EU have blamed Assad as being responsible for the attack, as has Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, although Syria’s army has denied it used chemical weapons, as has its patron Russia, saying it “has never used them, anytime, anywhere, and will not do so in the future.”
Assad also said that while he does not predict a victory for his regime and his Russian and Iranian backers this year, he believes that momentum is on their side.
“Of course, things are moving in a better direction, as I said, not in the interest of the terrorists but in the interest of the Syrian people, but war is unpredictable,” he said.
“We have a great hope which is becoming greater; and this hope is built on confidence, for without confidence there wouldn’t be any hope.”
He also said that he sees the conflict as one he must win.
“We do not have any other option except victory. If we do not win this war, it means that Syria will be deleted from the map. We have no choice in facing this war, and that’s why we are confident, we are persistent and we are determined.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.