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Syria at UN accuses Israel of ‘escalation’ on false pretenses

Foreign minister blames US for blindly allowing Israeli attacks on Syrian territory, which he says are ‘heightening tensions to unprecedented levels’

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 28, 2019, in New York. (Johannes EISELE / AFP)
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem speaks at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 28, 2019, in New York. (Johannes EISELE / AFP)

Syria’s top diplomat on Saturday accused Israel of starting “another phase of escalation” through its repeated attacks on Syrian territory and the territory of other neighboring countries, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also demanded the immediate withdrawal of American and Turkish forces from the country and said his government reserves the right to defend its territory in any way necessary if they remain.

Muallem said Israel’s air campaign which the IDF says is intended to keep Iranian forces and allied militias from gaining a foothold in the area, had been launched under “false pretexts.”

“These Israeli violations would not continue and escalate if it were not for the blind support of certain countries that are fully responsible for the consequences of Israel’s actions,” he said, referring to the United States.

He accused Israel of “heightening regional tensions to unprecedented levels.”

Illustrative. This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows missiles flying into the sky near international airport, in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019. (SANA via AP)

Syria rarely comments on the Israeli campaign beyond occasionally claiming to repel attacks, often without naming Israel as the aggressor. Jerusalem maintains an official policy of ambiguity meant to give Damascus, Tehran and others cover against retaliating, though in recent years some Israeli officials have begun to open up about the attacks.

Israeli soldiers maneuver Merkava tanks in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on June 2, 2019. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Muallem also rejected the idea that the Syrian conflict would force the government to forfeit its “inalienable right” to recover the Golan Heights which Israel captured during the June 1967 Six Day War. The annexation is not recognized under international law.

“It is a delusion to think that the decisions of the US administration on the sovereignty over the Golan would alter historical and geographical facts or the provisions of international law,” Muallem stressed.

“The Golan has been and will forever be part of Syria,” he said.

US President Donald Trump in March signed a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing more than a half-century of US policy in the Middle East. The US president also moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem in recognition of Israel’s claims of the city as its capital.

Most of Muallem’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly focused on the enormous challenges to achieve reconciliation in Syria, where over 400,000 people have been killed during the conflict and millions more have fled.

He reaffirmed the government’s support for the recently agreed committee to draft a new constitution for the country. As has been the government’s tone since the start of the 2011 uprising in Syria, the foreign minister took a hard line, stressing there must be no interference from any country or timeline imposed on the process.

The more than eight-year conflict has also drawn numerous foreign militaries and thousands of foreign fighters to Syria, many to support the now-defeated Islamic State extremist group and others still there backing the opposition and battling government forces.

His remarks were made as Turkey and the United States press ahead with a deal to create a safe zone along Syria’s border with Turkey.

“The United States and Turkey maintain an illegal military presence in northern Syria,” Muallem said. “Any foreign forces operating in our territories without our authorization are occupying forces and should withdraw immediately.”

A Turkish military convoy at Kirikhan, in Hatay region at the Syria border, on January 12, 2019. (STRINGER / DHA / AFP)

If they refuse, he said, “we have the right to take any and all countermeasures authorized under international law.”

There are around 1,000 US troops in Syria on a mission to combat Islamic State militants. The United States also backs and supports Kurdish groups in the northeast that are opposed to the Syrian government and have fought against Sunni extremist groups.

US President Donald Trump had said he wants to bring the troops home, but military officials have advocated a phased approach.

Muallem described Turkey and the United States as “arrogant to the point of holding discussions and reaching agreements on the creation of a so-called ‘safe zone’ inside Syria” as if it was on their own soil. He said any agreement without the consent of the Syrian government is rejected.

The deal between the US and Turkey keeps US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, considered terrorists by Turkey, away from Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey. It involves an area five to 14 kilometers deep (three to eight miles), as well as the removal of heavy weapons from a 20-kilometer-deep zone (12 miles). The length of the zone has not yet been agreed to by both parties but will likely stretch hundreds of kilometers.

Most of Syria is now under the control of the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran. However, Syrian rebels and extremists still hold Idlib in the northwest, and US-backed Kurdish groups hold parts of the oil-rich northeast.

This photo released by the activist-operated Thiqa News Agency, shows smoke rising after airstrikes hit the town of Ihsem, in Idlib province, Syria, August 26, 2019. (Thiqa News Agency via AP)

The Syrian government maintains that Idlib remains a hotbed for “terrorists” and Muallem vowed that its “war against terrorism” will continue “until rooting out the last remaining terrorist.”

In a breakthrough on the political front, earlier this week UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of the committee that would draft Syria’s new constitution, which he said could be an important step toward ending the war.

The UN chief announced Saturday that the committee will meet for the first time in Geneva on Oct. 30. Its rules state that a new constitution will be followed by “free and fair elections under United Nations supervision.”

The committee was authorized at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, but it took nearly 20 months for the sides to agree on the 150 members — particularly on a 50-member civil society of experts, independents, tribal leaders and women to serve alongside 50 members from the government and 50 members from the opposition. The UN was authorized to put together the civil society list but the choices faced objections, mainly from the Syrian government.

Under the newly announced terms, the “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned” committee, with UN envoy Geir Pedersen as facilitator, will amend the current 2012 constitution or draft a new one.

Muallem stressed that the committee will operate without preconditions, its recommendations must be made independently, and “no deadlines or timetables must be imposed on the committee.”

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