Despite almost six years of war between his army and rebels backed by the West and Gulf countries, Syrian President Bashar Assad said he still considers Israel the one and only “enemy” state, in an interview published Thursday.
The statement came in an apparent attempt to extend an olive branch to citizens of Gulf countries, as his regime neared a victory in Aleppo seen as possibly decisive in stamping out the insurgency that has left Syria in tatters.
Much of the interview, with Syrian daily Al-Watan, was devoted to Assad’s recent success in the battle over Aleppo, with the defiant leader dismissing calls for a ceasefire in what was once the country’s largest city.
But the Syrian president was also asked whether the shifting sands in the Middle East, partially blown by the winds of the Syrian civil war, had caused any other country to attain the level of enmity Damascus felt toward the Jewish state.
“Before the war, it was known to us that Syria had but a single enemy—Israel… After six years of war in Syria, is it possible that Syria has some new official enemies?” Assad was asked.
The Syrian president responded by saying only a state that is “occupying your land” can be considered an enemy state, and that having a “hostile policy” isn’t enough to earn the title.
He brought up France, the former colonial power in Syria, as an example of a country no longer considered an enemy.
“Whereas Israel occupies Syrian territory, so the issue is different,” said Assad.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War of 1967, then effectively annexed it in 1981. Syria, and much of the West, considers the Israeli Golan Heights occupied Syrian territory and Syria has pushed for its return.
On the other hand, Assad said he didn’t blame residents of Gulf countries for their governments’ support of the rebels.
“The story is the same with the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have taken very hostile positions and have historically been one of the reasons for Israel’s continued existence and superiority in the region,” Assad said. “This does not make the people of Saudi Arabia or Qatar or any other country an enemy people. Therefore, I say that officials in these [Gulf] countries may have put themselves in the enemies box, but not the state or the people.”
“As for Israel, it remains the enemy,” Assad said.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are well-known financial backers of rebel groups currently fighting Assad’s army in Syria. Both countries have called for Assad to step down from power.
In the past eight days, Syria has twice claimed Israel carried out strikes against its military positions.
On Wednesday morning, a bombing near a Damascus military airport was blamed on Israel.
A week earlier, Israeli planes also reportedly struck both a weapons site near the Syrian capital and a Hezbollah convoy, causing some large explosions but also no casualties.
Israel generally does not officially admit to carrying out attacks deep inside Syria, though it has publicly maintained it will not allow advanced weapons to be transferred to Hezbollah.
On Thursday morning, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman made a rare admission that Israel was specifically trying to keep chemical weapons out of the Lebanese terror group’s hands.
“Our policies and our positions are very clear and are based on three red lines: We won’t allow any harm to the citizens of the State of Israel, we won’t allow any harm to the sovereignty of the State of Israel and we will not allow the smuggling of high-quality advanced weapons and chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah,” Liberman said.
The defense minister insisted that Israel has “absolutely no interest” in getting involved in the Syrian civil war, but will work to defend itself.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this re