General Zahreddine’s remark supports Assad’s praise of “more homogenous” Syria



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UPDATE 1230 GMT: After criticism of his original remarks that refugees should not return to Syria, General Issam Zahreddine has issued a “clarification”.

Zahreddine said his words “addressing everyone who left or fled from Syria” were actually “directed at Daesh [the Islamic State] when I saw fighters of the Syrian Army who had been abused” and at “those who carried weapons” and “the insurgent who abused”.

ORIGINAL ENTRY: Reinforcing a statement by Bashar al-Assad in late August, the leading regime general Issam Zahreddine has told refugees not to return to Syria.

Zahreddine, one of the most celebrated figures among Assad supporters, has led the defense against the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor Province in eastern Syria, where the regime military has been surrounded and besieged since 2014. Last week, advancing pro-Assad forces made contact with the regime units in western Deir ez-Zor city and at the nearby military airport.

During an interview marking the lifting of the siege, Zahreddine said, as soldiers around him laughed:

I am addressing everyone who left or fled from Syria to any other country: please (sarcastic) do not come back to Syria because [even] if the State forgives you, we promise that we will not forget and we will not forgive.

An advice from my chin: nobody returns to Syria.

The comment appears to complement Assad’s statement, in a speech on August 20 to officials of the Foreign Ministry, praising the departure of some Syrians: “We have lost our best youth and our infrastructure, but we won a healthier and more homogeneous society.”

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Assad’s reference to homogeneity has raised questions over the regime’s line that it welcomes Syrian of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, including the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority of the country’s populations. The country’s leadership has been dominated for almost 50 years by a small elite around the Assad family, who belong to the Alawite sect.

The regime’s defenders have tried to argue that Assad’s remark was both poorly translated and was actually a statement promoting a common attitude rejecting sectarianism.

As pro-Assad forces have retaken territory — and as pro-Assad, Kurdish-led, and Turkish-supported rebel forces have all pushed back the Islamic State — about 500,000 Syrians have returned to their home areas this year. However, only about 45,000 have been returning refugees, according to the UN.

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A demonstration in Kafrumah in Idlib Province against the imposition of a death sentence on a civilian, Suleiman al-Zidan, by the jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham:

Russia’s Lavrov: US Presence in Syria Illegal…But We’ll Work With Them

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has sent a double-edged message to the US — while the American military presence in Syria is illegal, but can be accepted if it supports Russia in the fight against “terrorism”:

Speaking at a press conference alongside Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi, Lavrov said:

We cooperate in this format with Syrian armed forces exclusively for quashing terrorism and ending the civil war, start solving humanitarian problems and advance in political settlement….

Some unwelcome guests with arms in their hands are in Syria’s territory….As we saw a possibility to cooperate with them in the war on terror in the interests of all Syrian citizens, such contacts were established.

Lavrov’s message appeared to be part of the ongoing Russian effort to get the US to support Russia’s backing of the Assad regime, through “de-escalation zones” across Syria.

Lavrov and Safadi reportedly discussed the proposal for the expansion of a zone in southern Syria near the Jordanian border.

Earlier this week, it was reported that the US and Jordan are discussing the expansion, following US-Russian agreement on the area in the southwest near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As part of the effort, Washington and Amman have cut off aid to Free Syrian groups still challenging pro-Assad forces, rather than the Islamic State.

However, Russia may have objections to the reported US stipulation that pro-Assad, Iranian-backed militias cannot be within 40 km (25 miles) of the Jordanian border.

Lavrov insisted, “Russia, as well as the representatives of Iran, including the representatives of the Hezbollah movement, is working here upon a direct invitation of Syria’s legitimate authorities.”

He then tried to turn the issue against the US, saying that under the Obama Administration, it lacked the courage, capability or an opportunity to separate the Syrian opposition from the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra.