Assad threatens new war against Idlib province
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday that if rebels did not leave Idlib province for Turkey, they had two choices – either war or surrender to the regime.
In a pre-recorded interview with a regime TV station, Assad said that there was an agreement with Russia and Iran for a date to start an offensive against rebel-held Idlib province, which is home to three million people, nearly half of them refugees displaced by Assad’s forces from other parts of Syria.
In September 2018, Russia, Turkey, and Iran sponsored the Sochi Agreement, a deal which set up a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib. As part of the deal, Turkish forces set up “observation posts” around the perimeter of the rebel held area.
However, Assad’s forces launched a bloody offensive against Idlib province in April, which killed hundreds of people and displaced over 500,000. The Idlib front has been relatively quiet since September, however, following a new ceasefire deal.
The United Nations, however, fears that further regime advances would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and the flight of millions more refugees to Turkey.
Assad added that he did not want to make an “enemy” of Turkey, despite recent clashes between his forces and the Turkish army near Ras al-Ain in northern Syria. On Thursday, Turkey returned 18 regime soldiers to Syria.
Assad, however, said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was himself an “enemy” due to policies hostile to the Syrian regime, which Assad said were opposed by most of Turkey’ political elite.
This month Ankara launched an operation across Syria's northern border against Kurdish forces known as “Peace Spring”. Turkey aimed to set up a “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border where it could repatriate some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees on its territory.
However, Turkey last week struck a deal with Russia to halt its weeks-long operation, after Kurdish forces agreed to withdraw from a section of the border area.
The Kurds spearheaded a US-backed military campaign against the Islamic State group that deprived the extremists 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 the Assad regime, which swiftly deployed and reclaimed swathes of territory it lost years ago.
Assad said the deployment is a prelude to reinstating complete regime control over Kurdish-held areas of Syria, adding that the process would be "gradual" and would "respect new realities on the ground."
Assad added that Trump was the best president of the United States so far, because he was the most transparent, adding that Syria could not confront the US because it was a superpower.
He said that he had no prior knowledge of the US operation to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying that the regime did not participate in it and did not know whether it was real or not.
Assad also predicted that Turkish-held areas in northern Syria would return to regime control, saying that the Turkish presence there was “temporary”.
The Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, after the brutal suppression of peaceful protests by the Assad regime. More than 500,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced, mostly as a result of regime bombardment of civilian areas.
Agencies contributed to this report.