6 killed in mortar attack at Damascus fair
DAMASCUS, Syria, Aug 20, (Agencies): Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday refused any security cooperation with Western nations or the reopening of their embassies, until they cut ties with opposition and insurgent groups.
Shortly after Assad gave his speech, a shell hit the first international fair in the country since the war began six years ago, killing and wounding several people. Assad’s defiant comments come at a time when his troops and pro-Iranian militiamen are gaining ground across the country under the cover of Russian airstrikes. Many countries have ceased calling for him to step down.
Speaking before dozens of Syrian diplomats in Damascus, Assad praised Russia, Iran, China and Lebanon’s Hezbollah for supporting his government during the conflict. He said Syria will look east when it comes to political, economic and cultural relations. “The direct support of our friends, politically, economically and militarily, made our advance on the ground greater and the losses of war less. Therefore, they are our partners in these achievements on the road to crush terrorism,” Assad said.
“Let’s be clear. There will be no security cooperation nor opening of embassies or even a role for some countries that say that they want to play a role in ending the crisis in Syria before they clearly and frankly cut their relations with terrorism,” Assad said. “At that point maybe we can speak about opening embassies.” Following months of steady military advances, Syria’s government has sought to portray itself as the victor in a war that is winding down, and is looking ahead to reconstruction.
The Syrian president said his country’s economy is turning to growth again “at a very slow pace, although we are under an almost complete embargo.” The government had billed the international trade fair, which opened three days ago, as a “victory” and a sign of renewed confidence in the war-torn nation. The Mortar News in Damascus Facebook page, which tracks violence in the capital, said the shell hit the entrance of the fair, killing four people and wounding four others.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an oppositionrun group that reports on both sides of the conflict, said the shell killed six people and wounded 11 but did not say who was behind the attack. The state-run news agency said the shelling inflicted casualties but gave no further details. It blamed the rebels in the suburbs of the capital, saying they fired the shell in violation of a truce reached earlier this month in the eastern suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian crisis began in March 2011 with a peaceful uprising against Assad’s government, later escalating into a full-fledged civil war after a brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency. The conflict has since killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population.
In the early years of the conflict, many Western and Arab countries called on Assad to step down, and both the US and the European Union have imposed sanctions on his government. Several Arab and Western countries also withdrew their diplomats from Damascus. But after the Islamic State group declared a caliphate in large parts of Syria and Iraq, the international focus turned to crushing the extremists, who have planned attacks around the world that killed and wounded hundreds of people. Assad said that hardly a week passes without an attack in the West, referring to assaults carried out by IS supporters. “These facts are what forced them (the West) to change their stance,” Assad said.
He welcomed recent deals to deescalate violence in Syria, but vowed not to give the opposition in politics what it failed to gain through arms. The de-escalation zones in central, northern and southern Syria were proposed in a plan approved in May by Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The plan included a cessation of hostilities, a halt to Syrian government air raids over designated areas, and provisions for humanitarian aid access.
Despite that deal, Assad said Syrians don’t trust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and that the Syrian leader does not consider him to be a guarantor. Erdogan’s government is a main backer of Syrian rebels, and sent troops into Syria a year ago to battle IS and to halt the advance of Kurdish forces. Those troops, and allied Syrian forces, now control a stretch of Syrian territory along the border. “Any Turkish citizen who is in Syria without permission from the Syrian government will be considered an occupier,” Assad said.
Meanwhile, Lebanon suffered its first casualties from a massive operation to drive the Islamic State group from an area along the Syrian border on Sunday when a roadside bomb killed three soldiers. The deaths came a day after the USbacked army launched its biggest military operation yet against IS, which gained a foothold along the tiny Mediterranean country’s border with Syria in 2014.
On Sunday, the Lebanese Armed Forces pressed their offensive in a mountainous region bordering Syria, capturing new hills from IS. A bomb struck one of the advancing armored vehicles, killing the three soldiers, a military official said. The official said troops captured several hills on the outskirts of the Lebanese village of Ras Baalbek, adding that army commander Gen Joseph Aoun visited areas regained from the extremists.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Simultaneously, the Syrian army and its ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, are pushing to clear IS militants from the Syrian side of the border, in the western Qalamoun mountain range. Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2013. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV meanwhile reported that Syrian warplanes carried out their most intense airstrikes Sunday since the operations against the extremists began. Lebanese soldiers renewed fire on Islamic State group positions on the country’s eastern border with Syria on Sunday after capturing a third of the territory held by jihadists in the area.
Lebanon’s army began its operation in the Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al- Qaa region early on Saturday, and in the first day captured around 30 square kilometres (11 miles square) of territory, a military spokesman said. “That is around a third of the area controlled by the terrorists,” Brigadier General Nazih Jreij said late Saturday. Jreij said 20 IS fighters had been killed in the clashes, and 10 Lebanese soldiers wounded. Lebanon’s battle against IS comes as the jihadist group faces assaults in both neighbouring Syria and Iraq, where the government early Sunday announced an offensive on the group’s bastion of Tal Afar.
The attack also comes after IS claimed several international attacks, including twin car ramming incidents in Spain that killed 14 people. Lebanese soldiers raised the Spanish flag on a hilltop captured from IS on Saturday in a tribute to the victims of those attacks, the army said. Lebanon’s military estimated around 600 IS fighters were present in the Jurud Ras Baalbek and Jurud al-Qaa areas, controlling around 120 square kilometres of territory before Saturday’s advances.