Syrian President Bashar Assad said Israeli airstrikes in Syria were targeting his country’s military, and not Iranian forces, in an interview broadcast on Wednesday.
“The Israeli attacks are mainly directed against the Syrian army,” Assad told Sky News Arabic in a rare interview.
“It’s an excuse that it’s an Iranian presence,” Assad said, according to a translation of his comments by the Walla news site.
Israel’s military has acknowledged conducting hundreds of sorties in Syria against Iran-backed groups attempting to gain a foothold in the country, over the last decade.
The Israeli military says it also attacks arms shipments believed to be bound for Iran-backed groups, chief among them Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist organization. Additionally, airstrikes attributed to Israel have targeted Syrian air defense systems. Israel does not, as a rule, comment on specific strikes in Syria.
In the most recent attack, Israeli airstrikes targeted areas near Syria’s capital Damascus early Monday, killing four soldiers, Syria’s state-run SANA media outlet reported.
In the Sky News Arabic interview, his first talk with a foreign media outlet in months, Assad also indicated that his government’s ties to the Hamas terror group and Turkey have been strained by over a decade of civil war in Syria.
Hamas was headquartered in Damascus before the war but left Syria in 2012 after condemning the Assad government’s brutal suppression of protests.
Last year, Hamas said it had restored relations with the Syrian government after a visiting delegation met with Assad in Damascus.
But the Syrian president said that it was “too early” to speak of resuming normal ties with the terror group.
“For now, Hamas does not have offices in Damascus,” he added in the interview.
Asked about mending ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long supported rebel groups in Syria’s north, Assad said: “Why should I meet Erdogan? To drink refreshments?”
Erdogan and Assad had amicable relations in the 2000s but as war broke out, Turkey supported early rebel efforts to topple the Syrian president.
Erdogan reversed course in past years as Damascus clawed back, with Russian and Iranian support, much of the territory it had lost to rebels early in the conflict.
But Assad has long said he will not meet Erdogan unless Turkish forces leave Syria, where they control parts of the north.
“Erdogan’s goal is to legitimize Turkish occupation in Syria. This is why a meeting is not possible under Erdogan’s conditions,” Assad said.
Syria’s war has killed a half-million people, wounded more than a million, left large parts of the nation destroyed and displaced half the country’s prewar population of 23 million. The fighting has mostly stalemated in the recent years.