PARIS, Feb 7, (Agencies): France’s foreign minister on Wednesday demanded that all Iranian-backed militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, leave Syria and said that Turkey and Iran were violating international law through their actions in the country.
Speaking on BFM television, Jean-Yves Le Drian also said there were indications Syrian government forces were using toxic gas against civilians although the UN would need to confirm that. Asked whether he wanted Turkish armed forces to withdraw from Syria, Le Drian replied that he wanted “the withdrawal of all of those who ought not to be in Syria, including Iranian militia, including Hezbollah.” While not specifically calling for Turkey to pull back from its offensive against Kurdish militias in northern Syria, he said that Ankara should not worsen the conflict.
“Ensuring the security of its borders does not mean killing civilians and that should be condemned. In a dangerous situation in Syria, (Turkey) should not add war to war.” France has backed the Syrian opposition during the seven-year war and is part of the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants. Le Drian said international law “is being violated by Turkey, by the Damascus regime, by Iran and those who are attacking eastern Ghouta and Idlib”.
His remarks amount to France’s toughest line yet on Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Le Drian is due in Tehran on March 5 for talks over its ballistic missile programme, the nuclear deal agreed with world powers in 2015 and the role of Iran in the region at a time when the United States has put pressure on its European allies to toughen their stance on Tehran.
Relations between France and Iran have deteriorated in recent months, with the sides repeatedly exchanging barbs. Le Drian has accused Iran of harbouring “hegemonic” aspirations in the region. Iran is a key ally of the Syrian government in the seven-year civil war and it says it has no intention of withdrawing unless Syria requested it do so. Le Drian also said it looked likely that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were using chlorine gas in their Russian-backed offensive on the rebelheld Idlib province and in the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta.
“I’m speaking with a degree of caution because you have to be careful pending full documentation, but all the indications that we have show that at the moment chlorine is being used by the Syrian regime,” Le Drian said, adding that the United Nations had opened an investigation. French President Emmanuel Macron said in May last year that he had clear red lines on chemical weapons saying that “any use of chemical weapons would result in reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned.”
UN war crimes investigators said Tuesday that they were studying “multiple” reports that chemical weapons have been used in the rebel-held zones of Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, and in the northwestern Idlib Province in recent weeks. The United States said this week there was “obvious evidence” of recent chlorine gas attacks, including in Eastern Ghouta. Asked how France would respond, Le Drian pointed to the “partnership against impunity” agreed by two dozen countries in January to ensure that perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria are held accountable. But he did not allude to any other response, including military retaliation, that France might take against the regime of Al-Assad if the attacks are confirmed.
Meanwhile, fresh regime strikes killed 31 civilians Wednesday in a rebel- held enclave near Damascus where overwhelmed medics were still treating the survivors of the Syrian conflict’s bloodiest day in months. The district of Eastern Ghouta, controlled by jihadist and Islamist rebel factions, suffered some of its worst bloodshed in years on Tuesday and the toll continued to mount overnight.
“The civilian toll is now 80. Two wounded people died after midnight,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “This was the highest civilian toll in Syria in nearly nine months, and one of the bloodiest days for Eastern Ghouta in several years,” the head of the Britain- based monitoring group told AFP. Nineteen children and 20 women are among the dead, and around 200 were wounded. There was no respite for Ghouta residents as regime warplanes returned on Wednesday morning and carried out strikes that killed nearly two dozen civilians across several towns. Ten were killed in Beit Sawa, among them four children.
Another eight died in Hammuriyeh and five in Douma, the Observatory said. In Hammuriyeh, a young man stared at the bodies of five children, including his younger brother, killed in a recent air strike. “I saw them filling up water, and a few minutes later the airplane hit. I came back and found all five dead,” he said.
Civilians had been bracing for more raids as the regime appeared intent on ratcheting up the pressure on Eastern Ghouta, a rebel pocket on the capital’s doorstep. “Please break up all gatherings and clear the streets,” blared anannouncement from mosque minarets in Douma. Surrounding areas and villages had been heavily battered by raids on Tuesday, flooding Douma’s hospitals with wounded children. Home to an estimated 400,000 people, the Eastern Ghouta region has been included in a de-escalation deal that was meant to bring calm. But bombardment there has increased in recent days, including with suspected chlorine-filled munitions.
Air strikes killed 31 civilians including 12 children in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region near Syria’s capital Damascus on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said Syrian government air strikes and artillery hit the towns of Douma, Beit Sawa and Hammouriyeh in the insurgent- controlled suburbs. The bombing also injured 65 people, the Britainbased war monitoring group said.
The Syrian government has repeatedly said it only targets militants. The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month. UN representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel bastion near Damascus after almost seven years of war, had not received interagency aid since November. The army and its allies have besieged Eastern Ghouta, a pocket of satellite towns and farms under the control of rebel factions, since 2013. Syrian air defence systems intercepted an Israeli air attack on a military position near the capital Damascus on Wednesday, the army said. “This morning, Israeli warplanes fired several missiles from Lebanese airspace on one of our military positions in the Damascus countryside,” said an army statement carried by state media. “Our air defence systems blocked them and destroyed most of them.” An AFP correspondent in Damascus heard loud blasts around 3:30 am (0130 GMT).