Assad raises prospect of armed confrontation in northern and eastern Syria



Syria’s White Helmets, the Russia Propaganda Machine, and the “Agitprop” Activists

Bashar al-Assad has signalled his intention to attack Kurdish-led forces in Syria, declaring that they are “traitors” because of US support.

Following meetings with a Russian delegation in which he sought economic assistance, Assad answered a question about his position on Syria’s Kurds, many of whom are seeking autonomy:

All those who work under the command of any foreign country in their own country and against their army and people are traitors, quite simply, regardless of their names, and that is our evaluation of the groups that work for the Americans in Syria.

The remarks were aimed at the Syrian Democratic Forces, created in autumn 2015 and led by the Kurdish militia YPG. Backed by US special forces and weapons, the SDF has taken much of northern and eastern Syria from the Islamic State, including cities such as Raqqa and oil and gas fields. The advance, combined with pro-Assad offensives, has brought the two sides next to each other in areas such as Deir ez-Zor Province on the Iraqi border.

Assad’s senior advisor Bouthaina Shaaban promised this autumn that regime forces will soon defeat the SDF in battle. The talk had been tempered recently as attention to the Geneva political talks; however, the regime’s walkout of the discussions last week appears to have fed Assad’s renewed aggressive line.

The Syrian ruler pushed away any talk of a political resolution yesterday, asserting, “The war on terrorism will only end when the last terrorist in Syria is eliminated, at which point there can be realistic talk of victory.”

Attacks on France and UN Envoy

Bolstering the regime’s refusal to talk with the opposition, Assad denounced both France and UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.

He claimed that Paris and De Mistura were “protecting” unnamed “groups that work for them”, giving a convoluted explanation:

Of course for us we can’t even hold these groups responsible for the failure of Geneva for a very simple reason: they are vocal groups that work for dollars, meaning that if you give them a dollar, they will make a sound, and if you give them ten dollars, they will make various tunes of sounds according to how much dollars you give them.

Assad was clearer in accusing France of being “the spearhead of supporting terrorism in Syria”.

On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron called Assad an “enemy of the Syrian people”.

Macron supported political negotiations — “We have to speak to Assad and his representatives” — but continued, “Assad will have to respond to his crimes before his people, before the international courts.”

Assad to Russia: Give Us Money

Assad’s meeting with the Russians, led by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, focused on the regime’s need for assistance with reconstruction after a 81-month conflict which has reduced Syria’s GDP by more than 75%. The Syrian leader framed his request for money in a wordy explanation to reporters:

This visit is an opportunity to promote existing projects and the sectors in which we started work, and at the same time expanding towards new sectors that we had not set as priorities two years ago. So, the delegation today is large and diverse and covers various fields, and very important projects have been proposed for Russian investments in Syria, particularly since we started the reconstruction stage now.

Assad gave no specifics, but Rozogin pointed to Russia acquiring a stake in Syria’s energy sector through reconstruction. He spoke of “rebuilding all of the country’s energy facilities” and emphasized: “Mr. President Bashar al-Assad said today that Syria has no desire to work with companies from countries which betrayed Syria at a certain moment.”

Rogozin said Russia and Syria will create a joint company for phosphate mining.

De Mistura Criticizes Assad Regime for Undermining Talks

In his harshest criticism of the Assad regime to date, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has chided Damascus for undermining the Geneva talks and for maintaining sieges on opposition areas.

Briefing the UN Security Council on Tuesday, De Mistura spoke about last week’s regime walkout from the discussion, refusing direct talks with the opposition.

See Syria Daily, Dec 15: Geneva Talks Collapse Amid Regime Refusal of Direct Negotiations

The envoy said he had met with the opposition 11 times and found them ready to engage in depth on all four issues: governance, a new Constitution, elections, and “fighting terrorism”. In contrast, the regime delegation set down preconditions and refused to discuss any topic except counter-terrorism.

Moreover, the delegation “laid out a new surprising and disturbing condition”, according to De Mistura. Echoing Bashar al-Assad’s language, They said the regime must have “full territorial control” of the country and an end to all “terrorists” before any progress can be made in areas such as the Constitution.

De Mistura added that “no progress” was made on urgent humanitarian issues such as sieges, political prisoners, and missing and kidnapped persons.

UN Renews Aid Resolution Despite Russian Objections

The UN Security Council has renewed cross-border aid deliveries to Syria’s opposition-held areas for one year, despite Russian objections.

Russian Deputy Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov argued that the situation in Syria had “changed radically” over the past three years and that cross-border aid was “a legacy of the past”: “We think it is important to gradually draw down this rudimentary scheme which has worked for Syria’s division.”

But Russia did not veto on the resolution put forward by Egypt, Japan, and Sweden, which was adopted 12-0 with China and Bolivia joining the Russians in abstaining.

UN aid officials say cross-border aid reaches one million Syrians per month on average, despite the Assad regime blocking many convoys.

Safronkov said aid agencies must return to the “traditional” approach of working with regime on providing humanitarian assistance to the entire country, insisting the UN must “make plans for a gradual withdrawal from this cross-border scheme”.

Russia’s RT Upset by Exposé on Russia’s Propaganda Campaign v. White Helmets

Russian State outlet RT has responded angrily to a lengthy exposé in The Guardian of the Russian-backed disinformation campaign by a “network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists, and trolls” against the White Helmets civil defense organization.

See Syria’s White Helmets, the Russia Propaganda Machine, and the “Agitprop” Activists

RT does not respond to the substance of the article, which sets out how the rescuers have been targeted by a combination of willing “agitprop” activists and Russian social media campaign. Instead it tries to mock, “These guys wear white helmets and surely only good guys wear white! They’ve reportedly fallen victim to the worst villain there is, Darth Vad… erm… Russian Social Media!!”

The piece revives the standard derogatory line that the White Helmets are backed both by “Al Qa’eda” and by the US and UK Governments but, interestingly, gives ground for the first time on the value of the organization’s work: “Do the White Helmets save people from bombed out buildings? Certainly they do.”