Assad says zones proposal “correct in principle” but “terrorist groups” and Western supporters likely to violate it
President Assad has accepted the Russian-led proposal for four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, while hedging against its implementation.
The Assad regime was slow to comment on last week’s initiative for the zones, announced by Russia, Turkey, and Iran at the political talks in the Kazakh capital Astana. Earlier this week Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that Damascus endorses the proposal, although he insisted that the UN could not be involved in providing security.
Assad told a Belarus TV channel on Thursday that the “Russian initiative is correct in principle”, giving “rebels an opportunity to reconcile themselves with the state” by laying down their arms in return for amnesty.
However, he expressed caution over implementation of the proposals, pondering if “terrorist groups” would exploit an opportunity and “other states, particularly Western states” would “send more logistic and financial support to these groups”?
He said, “This is very likely,” and warned, “The Syrian and Russian forces, with the Iranian support, and with support from Hezbollah, will strike any move on the part of the terrorists if they attempt to violate this agreement.”
The four zones cover much of opposition-held northwest Syria, include Idlib Province and parts of neighboring Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia Provinces; northern Homs Province; suburbs near Damascus; and areas in southern Syria.
Elsewhere in the interview, Assad gave his latest muddled answer over his regime’s April 4 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria, killing at least 92 people and wounding almost 600.
He did not hold to his previous declaration that the attack was a “100% fabrication” to justify US missile strikes on a regime airbase three days later. Instead, in a rambling, unclear exposition, he seemed to argue that the use of nerve agent — in a missile dropped by a regime Su-22 jet fighter — was a “false flag” attack, “part of the campaign waged on Syria with the aim of demonizing the Syrian state”.
UN: “Million Questions” Over Zones Proposal
The UN has expressed cautious support for the de-escalation zones, following discussions with the three proposers.
Jan Egeland, the UN’s humanitarian advisor on Syria, said:
Russia and Turkey and Iran explained to us today and yesterday…that they will work very openly, proactively, with United Nations and humanitarian partners to implement this agreement.
We do have a million questions and concerns but I think we don’t have the luxury that some have, of this distant cynicism, and saying it will fail. We need this to succeed.
It is still unclear if the UN will have a role in the security of the zones. The Assad regime’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem has rejected the involvement of the UN or other international organizations.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said the UN had “a lot of experience” in monitoring but declined to discuss specifics on the proposal’s implementation.
Forced Removals Resume in Damascus Suburb of Barzeh
Removals of rebels and residents have resumed in Barzeh, northeast of Damascus, after a delay.
A second set of people were moved on Friday to opposition areas in northwest Syria.
After weeks of bombardment and ground attacks, the opposition signed a capitulation agreement on Sunday, under which about 8,000 of 40,000 people will leave.
But after the first group of about 1,500 people left, rebels suspended arrangements on Wednesday night, accusing the regime of failing to release about 300 detainees, including seven women.
An initial “reconciliation” agreement was reached in early 2014, but the Assad regime was unhappy that the opposition retained control of the suburb and rebels remained.