UNITED NATIONS: Syria’s foreign minister on Saturday denounced US, French and Turkish forces operating in his country as “occupying forces” and demanded that they leave immediately.
Addressing the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem also called on Syrian refugees to come home, even though the country’s war is now in its eighth year.
Al-Moualem, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said the foreign forces were on Syrian soil illegally, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, and “will be dealt with accordingly.”
“They must withdraw immediately and without any conditions,” he told the assembly.
Al-Moualem insisted that the “war on terror is almost over” in Syria, where more than 360,000 people have died since 2011, with millions more uprooted from their homes.
He said Damascus would continue “fighting this sacred battle until we purge all Syrian territories” of both terror groups and “any illegal foreign presence.”
The United States has some 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly training and advising both Kurdish forces and Syrian Arabs opposed to President Bashar Assad.
France has more than 1,000 troops on the ground in the war-wracked country.
On the issue of refugees, Al-Moualem said the conditions were fine for them to return, and he blamed “some western countries” for “spreading irrational fears” that prompted refugees to stay away.
“We have called upon the international community and humanitarian organizations to facilitate these returns,” he said. “They are politicizing what should be a purely humanitarian issue.”
The United States and the European Union have warned that there will be no reconstruction aid for Syria until there is a political agreement between Assad and the opposition to end the war.
UN diplomats say a recent agreement between Russia and Turkey to set up a buffer zone in the last major rebel stronghold of Idlib has created an opportunity to press ahead with political talks.
The Russian-Turkish deal averted a large-scale assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces on the province, where three million people live.
Al-Moualem however stressed that the agreement had “clear deadlines” and expressed hope that military action will target militants including fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, who “will be eradicated.”
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is hoping to soon convene the first meetings of a new committee comprised of government and opposition members to draft a post-war constitution for Syria and pave the way to elections.
Al-Moualem laid out conditions for the Syrian government’s participation in the committee, saying the panel’s work should be restricted “to reviewing the articles of the current constitution,” and warned against interference.
Al-Moualem told the UN General Assembly that Damascus was ready for the voluntary return of refugees who fled during the more than seven-year conflict.
“We welcome any assistance with reconstruction from those countries that were not part of the aggression on Syria,” he said. “The countries that offer only conditional assistance or continue to support terrorism, they are neither invited nor welcome to help.”
Al-Moualem told the world that his country’s “battle against terrorism is almost over” after more than seven years of civil war, vowing the Syrian government will free the country from all “illegitimate” foreign troops.
He vehemently restated denials that Damascus has used chemical weapons during the war — although international investigators have found otherwise — and he called on all refugees to return home, saying that is a priority for Damascus.
“Today, the situation on the ground is more stable and secure, thanks to combatting terrorism,” he said. “All conditions are now present for the voluntary return of refugees.”
Idlib has been a relative refuge for people displaced by violence in other parts of the country, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said a full-scale battle for Idlib could unleash “a humanitarian nightmare” surpassing the misery already seen during the war.
“We fully condemn the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances,” Al-Moallem said. He said countries have lobbed “ready-made accusations” at Syria without what he described as any investigation or evidence.
The issue has been a flashpoint at the UN Security Council, with the US and Western countries denouncing Assad over chemical attacks and Russia rejecting the investigators’ findings. The US has twice carried out its own airstrikes in response to the chemical attacks.