Assad Accuses Erdogan of Backing Extremism

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Members of the anti-regime opposition forces make preparations before they attack to the areas under the control of Syrian army forces, deployed at Kafr Nasej and Taiha towns, on March 03, 2015 in Daraa, Syria. Anadolu/Stringer

Published Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Updated at 3:30 pm (GMT +2): Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of backing extremism as he met Tuesday with visiting Turkish opposition figures.

Assad’s statement comes as an opposition figure denied charges pressed against him as he awaits his verdict due on March 25.

"Erdogan leads with a destructive policy that does not serve at all the interest of his people, by supporting takfiri (jihadists) forces," state news agency SANA quoted Assad as saying.

The delegation included figures from various Turkish opposition parties and was led by Dogu Perincek, head of the ultranationalist Homeland Party, SANA reported.

The Homeland Party (Vatan Partisi) has its roots in the Revolutionary Workers' and Peasants' Party of Turkey, and Workers Party. The party recently changed its name as Vatan Partisi.

SANA reported that the party responded to an official invitation from the Syrian government. The delegation also met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem on March 1.

Formerly an ally of Damascus, Ankara broke off its relationship with Assad after the uprising's escalation in 2011 from peaceful demonstrations to a bloody civil war. Turkey has since supported the Syrian opposition and currently hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees.

Damascus has consistently accused the NATO member of harboring, financing, training, and arming militants since violence erupted in March 2011, saying it played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS.

Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, refusing a frontline military role despite its 1,200 kilometer (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria.

But it agreed in principle to train and equip Syrian rebels and is already training Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq.

The Syrian government has also repeatedly accused Ankara of playing a major role in fueling the armed crisis in Syria by opening its borders and allowing free access to foreign jihadists into Syria.

According to a UN report published in November, Turkey has been singled out as a major transit point for ISIS’ oil deliveries, with trucks often returning to Iraq or Syria with refined products.

In mid January, social media sites Twitter and Facebook, along with many other websites, were blocked in Turkey after anonymous accounts published new evidence in an ongoing case accusing Turkey of illegally shipping weapons to Islamist militants in Syria.

Opposition figure denies charges

Meanwhile, defense lawyers for leading Syrian opposition figure Louay Hussein denied all charges against him Tuesday as a criminal court in Damascus said it would announce its verdict on March 25.

In a hearing at the second chamber of Damascus's Criminal Court, Hussein's lawyers demanded an acquittal of their client and a lift on his travel ban.

"The accusations against me are despicable and the regime could apply them to anyone," Hussein told AFP.

Hussein, head of the Building the Syrian State party, was detained in November and accused of "weakening national sentiment and spreading false information," according to one of his lawyers, Michel Chammas. He was detained for three months in the Adra prison, northeast of Damascus, and released on bail on February 25.

Hussein had said that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was "in collapse" and had called for a "coalition government bringing together the regime and the opposition."

"All of the public articles by Louay Hussein and all of his positions show that he supports a peaceful solution in Syria," his defense team said.

During his last hearing in court, the prosecutor requested five years in prison for Hussein in line with the charges against him, Chammas told AFP. After his release on bail Hussein had told AFP he would continue his opposition efforts and remain in Damascus, saying: "If you want to fight for your country, you have to be there."

This is Hussein’s third time in jail for political reasons. His first arrest was when he was a university student, when he was stripped of his civil rights and spent seven years in prison between 1984 and 1991. His second arrest was following the March 2011 protests against the Assad government. He was among the first in line to speak out in support of the uprising.

The conflict in Syria began in March 2011 with anti-government protests which were brutally repressed. It has since spiraled into a multi-sided war, with Islamists pouring in from abroad.

France skeptical of Aleppo freeze plan

Since October, United Nations special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has been working on a plan to broker "local freezes," starting in the northern city of Aleppo, to alleviate fighting that has killed more than 210,000 people in four years and displaced half of the population.

He has frequently said the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub before the war, would be a "good candidate" for such a "freeze."

But France cast doubt Tuesday on whether a UN plan to freeze fighting in Aleppo will materialize, and blamed the Damascus regime for the setback.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre, who chairs the United Nations Security Council this month, said UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura still has the full support of the 15-member council despite his unsuccessful efforts.

"France remains skeptical about the regime's willingness" to support the UN plan for Aleppo, the envoy told a news conference.

But Delattre said the fault for the failure of the Aleppo plan lies with Assad, who he said had laid down unacceptable conditions.

"Bashar al-Assad is proposing truces while stepping up bomb attacks," the ambassador said.

Once Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo has been devastated by fighting that began in mid-2012, and the city is now split between loyalist forces and rebels.

De Mistura is due to travel to Paris on Wednesday for talks on his mission before heading to London on Thursday. He is not scheduled to report to the council this month, but envoys may decide to ask for an update.

Syrian rebel forces in Aleppo rejected the plan and have called instead for a comprehensive proposal to end the nearly four-year war.

Ex-UK Royal Marine killed fighting ISIS in Syria

A former British Royal Marine is believed to have become the first Briton to be killed fighting against ISIS in Syria, a lawmaker and Kurdish source said on Wednesday.

Erik Scurfield, who went to Syria on his own initiative as a private citizen, died after being hit by a mortar shell on Monday fighting alongside Kurdish YPG forces against ISIS militants near Tal Hamis in northeast Syria, a Kurdish source close to YPG told Reuters.

British lawmaker Dan Jarvis said the family of Scurfield, from Barnsley in northern England, had come to him a few weeks ago with concerns about their son.

"Tragically it appears their worst fears have been realized," Jarvis said in a statement.

"Erik was an experienced former Royal Marine who was horrified by the atrocities being carried out by ISIS. His family's understanding was that he traveled to Syria hoping to provide medical and humanitarian support as an expert in battlefield medicine," he added.

Britain's Foreign Office said it was aware of the reports of the death and reiterated its warning for Britons not to travel to the region.

"There is an issue that needs to be addressed as Erik was certainly not the first person to travel to Syria to join forces resisting ISIS," said Jarvis.

Britain estimates some 600 British Muslims have travelled to the region to join the conflict, with some joining the jihadists ranks, including Mohammed Emwazi, the Briton revealed last week to be the masked militant "Jihadi John" who has fronted ISIS videos of hostages being beheaded.

Fighters from the YPG had entered Tal Hamis on Friday and captured parts of the town after six days of clashes with the jihadists.

The town is northeast of the provincial capital, Hasaka city, and has been under ISIS control for more than a year.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel-Rahman said the town was "one of the most important strongholds" of the group in the region.

The Kurdish advance comes after days of fighting in which YPG forces have taken some 103 villages and hamlets in the area.

The UK marine is the second Westerner to die fighting with Kurdish Forces in Syria.

Since the clashes began on February 21, an Australian had died along with 30 fighters from the YPG and Arab rebel units fighting ISIS.

At least 175 ISIS fighters have been reportedly killed by the Kurds and airstrikes by a the US-led coalition.

(AFP, Anadolu, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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