Syria says backing rebels risks new attacks on America
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - U.S. support for Syrian rebels may lead to more attacks on American soil like those of September 11, said a senior Syrian official who warned that Islamist fighters would spread "the fire of terrorism" around the world.
Western powers are alarmed at al Qaeda militants joining a revolt that began two years ago with rallies for democracy and President Bashar al-Assad has seized on that unease; now, 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Syria's deputy foreign minister told Reuters that U.S. aid to the rebels may backfire.
"Once the fire of terrorism spreads in Syria it will go everywhere in the world," Faisal Mekdad said in an interview.
Referring to foreign jihadists whose presence has made the United States and European allies wary of arming Syrian rebels, he said: "These chickens will go back to roost where they came from because encouraging terrorism definitely backfires ... Once these terrorists succeed in Syria, they will go everywhere."
Speaking in fluent English at the heavily guarded white, stone-clad complex in central Damascus which houses the Foreign Ministry and prime minister's offices, Mekdad drew a comparison, made also by Assad himself, with the U.S.-backed Muslim holy war against Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan that fostered al Qaeda.
And asked whether the Boston bombings, blamed on radicalized Muslim immigrants, might change American views of a Syrian conflict that Assad has long painted as a war on terrorism, he replied: "I hope the American administration will remember again the September 11 attack - which we strongly condemned in Syria - and not repeat these policies which encourage terrorism."
Of 37 nationalities of "terrorist" he said were fighting in Syria, many were European, Mekdad said, including some from Russia's Chechnya region, ancestral home of the Boston suspects.
Assad's critics have argued that he himself is paying a price for helping Islamists from Syria and elsewhere - letting them cross into Iraq to fight U.S. forces there; some of those seasoned fighters have now joined the campaign to overthrow him.
Like other senior officials interviewed lately in Damascus, Mekdad projected a breezy confidence in Syrian forces' ability to win the civil war and denied the rebels were gaining ground.
While condemning support for the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels from Sunni neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as the Western powers, he said his government enjoyed broad international support, not limited to Russia or to Iran, whose Shi'ite branch of Islam is close to Assad's Alawite minority.
"I would like to say, with all confidence, that all Syria is controlled by the government but there are places where armed groups have been armed, financed, by certain circles - namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France and the UK and other European countries - who due to logistical reasons may control this or that part of Syria," he said. "But this is moving every day."
A man living near the Foreign Ministry, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters the complex had been attacked four times in recent months, twice with mortars and twice by men firing machineguns: "We are very frightened," he said, recalling how he took cover during the last mortar attack 10 days ago.
Asked when the government might win, Mekdad said it was combating "terrorist groups and usually in all those countries which have suffered the plague of terrorism it takes time".
"Once this support from neighboring and European countries ceases we can easily deal with it," said Mekdad, who hails from Deraa where protests began in March 2011 after teenagers were jailed for pro-democracy graffiti inspired by the Arab Spring.
He cited apparent success in offensives in Homs and near the western border, where rebels say Lebanese Hezbollah fighters are supporting Syrian troops. Going was also slow, he said, due to "the care practiced by the government with civilians".
The United Nations has said more than 70,000 people, have been killed and many countries have condemned shelling and aerial bombing by Syrian forces of residential areas.
Mekdad dismissed Western and Israeli claims that government forces had used chemical weapons, saying it was a "big lie" that Syria was blocking a U.N. investigation into the allegations.
He said Damascus had an initial agreement with the U.N. to look into claims that chemical weapons were used in the Khan al-Assal area near Aleppo but matters were complicated when the U.N. wanted to broaden the probe to include other allegations:
"We are ready to receive immediately the team to investigate the case of Aleppo, to provide all the logistics, help and support and protection and it is the responsibility of the U.N. secretariat if this delegation doesn't arrive in Syria."
A former Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Mekdad accused Britain and France of trying to complicate the U.N. investigation to prevent evidence emerging of rebel use of chemical shells, but did not offer evidence for the allegation.
The United Nations wants inspectors to investigate claims of chemical weapons use in Homs in December; France and Britain say the mission should look into a third alleged case in Damascus.
President Barack Obama has warned Assad that deploying chemical weapons would cross a "red line" that could prompt the United States to intervene in unspecified ways in the conflict - so far, however, Washington has said firm evidence is lacking.
Mekdad denied that Damascus was receiving arms and military support from Russia or fighters from Iran or Hezbollah, Tehran's Lebanese Shi'ite ally; foreign supporters were providing only humanitarian aid and Syria had ample reserves of its own.
"We are not isolated, we don't feel isolated," he said of efforts to impose international sanctions. "Besides Russia, we have China, India, South Africa and we have almost all Latin American countries, and Africa and other Asian countries."
He warned the EU against helping rebels sell oil from captured fields in the north: "That is a direct theft of Syrian property," he said. "We are still a government and a strong government. We will stop them," he added without elaborating.
Mekdad reflected the government's contention that Syria has been targeted by U.S.-allied Sunni Arab powers because it was part of "an axis of resistance", along with Iran and Hezbollah, and accused Sunni-led states of secretly supporting Israel: "We believe the main objective in attacking Syria is to weaken it as a major power and to implement Israel's policies in the region in connivance with the United States and Western interests."
Asked how he believed the conflict would end, Mekdad sketched two scenarios: "Either we opt for a political solution as projected by President Assad in his speech on January 6 ... or the other scenario where the main objective of arming, harboring and smuggling armed groups into Syria will continue."
"In this case, we have a strong army, we have a strong country, we have determination by the majority of Syrians to combat terrorism. But our preference and the preference of the Syrian leadership is to work for a political settlement."
Assad offered in that speech in January to negotiate with the opposition if they laid down their arms but he refused dialogue with "gangs recruited abroad" and his foes dismissed the offer out of hand as it did not mention Assad stepping down.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)