Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday charged that all the forces it has been fighting during the country’s eight-year civil war were “tools serving Israel directly or through the Americans,” and said he doesn’t recognize the existence of the modern-day nation of Israel.
In a wide-ranging prerecorded interview on state television, Assad also cast doubt over the assassination of terror chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, defended talks with Turkey, and said Israel “has never been absent” from the Syrian battlefield.
“We fight its proxies, agents, flunkies or tools, in different ways, some military some political,” he said, according to a translation by SANA. “They are all tools serving Israel directly or through the Americans. Israel is in fact a main partner in what is happening, and as an enemy state, that is expected. Will it stand by and watch? No. It will be proactive, and more effective in order to strike at Syria, the Syrian people, the Syrian homeland and everything related to Syria.
Asked if Israel was benefiting from recent developments, in which Turkey invaded the north of the country, Assad said: “This is self-evident. Even if we do not discuss it, it is one of our national givens in Syria.”
Assad said he did not want to make an “enemy” of neighboring Turkey despite the stand-off between their forces in the north of the country, and explained why he was willing to meet and negotiate with Ankara, as an occupying force, but not with Jerusalem.
“The difference between them and Israel is that we do not recognize the legitimacy of its existence as a state,” he said. “We don’t recognize the existence of the Israeli people. There is no Israeli people except the one that existed for several centuries BC, now they are a diaspora who came and occupied land and evicted its people. While the Turkish people exist, and they are a neighboring people, and we have a common history.”
Assad said however that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself was an “enemy” due to policies hostile to Syria and opposed by most of his country’s political elite.
“We must ensure that we don’t turn Turkey into an enemy and here comes the role of friends” such as Russia and Iran, the president said.
Turkey supports Syrian rebel forces who have battled Assad’s government during the eight-year-long war that has killed more than 370,000 people.
This month Ankara launched an operation across Syria’s northern border against Kurdish forces.
The Kurds spearheaded a US-backed military campaign against the Islamic State terror group that deprived the jihadists’ of their final slither of Syrian territory in March this year but Ankara views the Kurdish forces as terrorists.
Abandoned by their ally Washington — which early this month pulled its own troops back from the border area, effectively allowing Turkey to attack — the Kurds turned to Damascus which swiftly deployed and reclaimed swathes of territory it lost years ago.
Assad said the deployment is a prelude to reinstating complete central government control over the region in a process he said would be “gradual” and would “respect new realities on the ground.”
Turkey last week struck a deal with Russia to halt its weeks-long operation. The agreement calls for the withdrawal of Syrian Kurdish fighters from areas along Turkey’s border with Syria, with a view to setting up a “safe zone” where Ankara plans to repatriate some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it currently hosts.
Joint Turkish-Russian patrols are due to start in areas near the Syrian border on Friday after the Kremlin said that Syrian Kurdish fighters had withdrawn in accordance with the terms of the deal between Ankara and Moscow.
In the interview aired Thursday, Assad said the deal is “temporary.”
“We have to distinguish between ultimate or strategic goals… and tactical approaches,” he said, stressing that his forces will eventually reclaim territory taken by Ankara in its latest offensive.
The situation around the northwestern region of Idlib showed how the regime could bypass Ankara, he said.
Russia and Turkey last year reached a ceasefire deal that was meant to protect the Idlib region of three million people from an all-out regime assault.
As part of the deal, Turkish forces deployed around Idlib in a bid to ensure the withdrawal of jihadist fighters and allied rebels from a deescalation zone there.
But Assad’s opponents did not pull back and last week Syria’s president said that winning the Idlib front would be key to winning the war. He noted that his troops had completed preparations for an offensive.
Idlib province is the last major opposition bastion outside the regime’s control.
Breaking the regime’s silence over the killing of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by American commandos near Idlib, Assad expressed doubts over the operation and denied Damascus had any role in it. The Syrian regime has in the past charged that the terror group was created and is supported by the US and Israel.
“We do not really know whether the operation did actually take place or not. No aircraft were detected on radar screens,” he said.
“Was he really killed? Was he killed but through a different method, in a very ordinary way? Was he kidnapped? Was he hidden? Or was he removed and given a facelift? God only knows,” he added. “I believe the whole thing regarding this operation is a trick.”