SYRIAN leader Bashar al-Assad warned on Monday that Western military strikes risked igniting a ‘regional war’ in the ‘powder keg’ of the Middle East, in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro.
He also said France would face ‘repercussions’ if it took part in US-led plans for military action in response to what the US and its allies insist was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s regime last month.
‘The Middle East is a powder keg, and the fuse is getting shorter,’ Assad told the newspaper’s correspondent in Damascus.
‘We cannot only talk about a Syrian response, but what could happen after the first strike. Nobody knows what will happen,’ Assad said.
‘Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There is a risk of regional war.’
Assad also said France, which is prepared to back Washington in threatened military strikes in response to the alleged August 21 chemical attack, should consider the consequences of such action.
‘Whoever works against the interests of Syria and its citizens is an enemy. The French people are not our enemy, but the policy of their state is hostile to the Syrian people,’ he said.
‘Insofar as the policy of the French state is hostile to the Syrian people, the state will be its enemy . . . There will be repercussions, negative ones of course, on the interests of France.’
The president explained that French policy on Syria now ‘depends totally on Qatar and the United States’ who have overtly backed the armed gangs who are attacking the regime.
Assad said that at the start of the crisis, now into its third year, a solution could have been found through dialogue or political measures but the situation today was now ‘different’.
‘We are fighting terrorists. Eighty to 90 per cent of those we are fighting belong to Al-Qaeda. Those people are neither interested in reforms, nor in politics,’ he said, adding that the sole option was to ‘liquidate’ them.
Assad said the only way to a solution would be to prevent the terrorists backed by money and arms from entering Syria and dismissed the ‘rebels’ as foreign stooges.
‘The opposition has no popular base in Syria. It is made in France, made in Qatar but certainly not made in Syria. It follows the orders of those who made it.’
The Syrian leader specifically named Britain, the United States, France, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as those who had provided huge financial and military backing to the opposition.
Assad said France, which had notably opposed the Anglo-American offensive on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, leading to its widespread vilification in the United States, had ‘decided to renounce its independence and become a subaltern actor in American politics.’
‘The question is whether the French will find their independence when they take their decision,’ he said, slamming the ‘double standards’ promoted by the United States.
The French parliament was due to hold an emergency session on Syria yesterday but there was to be no vote.
‘Today the stability of the region depends on the situation in Syria,’ Assad warned, dismissing responsibility for the alleged chemical attack.
Assad dismissed Washington’s allegations that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack in Alepo that killed more than 1,400 people, saying: ‘Whoever makes accusations must furnish proof.
‘We have challenged the United States and France to advance the slightest proof. If the Americans, the French or the British had one single proof they should have shown it from day one.’
He questioned the ‘logic’ of claims that his forces carried out the attack.
‘Supposing our army wishes to use weapons of mass destruction. Is it possible that it would do so in a zone where it is located and where (our) soldiers were wounded by these arms, as United Nations inspectors have noted during visits to hospitals where they were treated?’
Meanwhile in Lebanon the Hezbollah group, a close ally of the Syrian regime, is redeploying its forces ahead of possible US strikes on Damascus.
According to residents in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre there appeared to be a general mobilisation of the group’s members.
Many Hezbollah fighters have disappeared from local villages in the last five days, though strict security measures around group headquarters and checkpoint have remained in place, residents said.
The situation is the same in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, a stronghold of the organisation.
Residents said fighters, including gunners, had left their regular posts, and switched off their mobile phones to ensure they could not be traced.
In the southern suburbs of the capital Beirut, also considered a Hezbollah bastion, teenagers have replaced more experienced fighters at checkpoints inspecting cars entering the district.
Hezbollah spokesmen have declined to comment on the reported redeployment of the group’s forces.
The group has already dispatched fighters to battle alongside Syrian troops against the ‘rebels’ seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Wadah Charara, an expert on the group, says it commands around 30,000 fighters, including 10,000 with extensive combat experience.
Between 800 and 1,200 Hezbollah fighters are thought to have taken part in the Syrian regime’s battle to recapture the town of Qusayr in central Homs province earlier this year.
These reports come as the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is close to both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, said on Monday that the group had ‘called on all its officers and members to man their positions (in Syria)’.
On Monday, Al-Akhbar also reported that the ‘Syrian army has mobilised units that have not participated until now in the conflict.’
‘It has established an operations room . . . with Hezbollah and the units in charge of missiles at an unprecedented level of alert.
‘The Islamic resistance (Hezbollah) has called on all its officers and members to man their positions,’ the newspaper reported.
This mobilisation comes after US President Barack Obama said that while his mind is made up on aerial strikes against Syria he will seek approval from Congress.