Assad Says Damascus Receives Information on US-led Airstrikes

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) giving an interview to the BBC's Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen in Damascus on February 8. AFP.

Published Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said third parties including Iraq were conveying information to Damascus about the US-led campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group in Syria.

Assad’s announcement came a day after a the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that Syrian air force strikes on a key rebel bastion on the outskirts of Damascus killed 15 people.

In an interview with the BBC broadcast on Tuesday, Assad said there was no direct cooperation with the United States, whose air force has been bombing ISIS in Syria since September as part of a strategy aimed at rolling back the group.

ISIS has seized wide areas of Syria and Iraq, declaring them part of a cross-border "caliphate." Damascus has grudgingly accepted the strikes against ISIS on its territory but has repeatedly criticized the coalition for failing to coordinate with it.

It says the raids cannot defeat ISIS unless the international community starts cooperating with Syrian troops on the ground. Assad said the US-led strikes had the potential to help his government if they were "more serious."

"Yes, it will have some benefits, but if it was more serious and more effective and more efficient. It's not that much."

The Syrian government is waging its own, separate campaign against ISIS, including airstrikes in areas that have also been struck by the US-led alliance.

In an interview with the French magazine Paris Machet in early December, Assad also criticized the unseriousness of the strikes.

"You can't end terrorism with aerial strikes. Troops on the ground that know the land and can react are essential. That is why there haven't been any tangible results.”

It has been widely assumed the Syrian and US armies have conveyed information about the movements of jets using the same air space.

Asked if there was indirect cooperation in Tuesday’s interview, Assad said: "That's true, through third parties, more than one party, Iraq and other countries, sometimes they convey a message, a general message, but there is nothing tactical."

"There is no dialogue. There's, let's say, information, but not dialogue.”

Assad said the Syrian government had known about the US-led campaign before it started but did not have details. The US said in September it had informed the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations ahead of the first strikes.

Washington has ruled out cooperating with Assad's government against ISIS, and the Syrian leader said Damascus had no interest in joining the coalition.

"No, definitely we cannot and we don't have the will and we don't want, for one simple reason — because we cannot be in an alliance with countries which support terrorism."

Damascus, Iran and other critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.

Washington recently unveiled a project to train more than 5,000 “moderate” rebels in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to allegedly fight ISIS and topple the Syrian regime.

Assad said in an interview with the American magazine Foreign Affairs that the planned US-trained force would be "illegal" and would be treated like any other rebel group.

“Without cooperation with Syrian troops, they are illegal, and are puppets of another country, so they are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army.”

Assad denies usage of indiscriminate weapons

Human rights groups accuse Damascus of indiscriminately killing civilians in air strikes on rebel-held areas, using unguided munitions such as barrel bombs.

But Assad denied that the army was using the makeshift bombs — crude barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel that are generally dropped by helicopter.

"I haven't heard of (the) army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots," he said, laughing.

"We have bombs, missiles and bullets," he added, dismissing claims that the army was using indiscriminate weapons.

"There are no indiscriminate weapons. When you shoot, you aim, and when you shoot, when you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians," he said.

The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition as “terrorism.”

He also denied claims that Syria's government had used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013, in an attack outside Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people.

"Who verified who threw that gas on who?" he said, adding that the reported death toll was “exaggerated.” He also said his forces were "definitely not" using chlorine as a weapon.

Since Syria gave up its chemical arsenal in a Russian- and US-brokered deal after the 2013 attack, there have been persistent reports of the use of chlorine gas.

In many of those instances, residents reported hearing helicopters, suggesting the involvement of army air forces.

Syria's conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the country's conflict in March 2011 and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

Monitor: 15 killed in army’s airstrikes on Douma

At least 15 people were killed and dozens wounded on Monday in army’s airstrikes on an area outside the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

There were no immediate details on the breakdown of those killed in the strikes, which are the latest to hit the town of Douma in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta.

The opposition bastion, east of Damascus, was still reeling from a massive army aerial assault on Thursday that came after rebels fired more than 120 rockets and mortar rounds into the capital.

The rebel barrage killed 10 people in Damascus while the army airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles fired at Eastern Ghouta killed at least 82 people.

Eastern Ghouta has been under siege for nearly two years, leading to food and medical shortages. Since mid-2012, the Syrian army has carried out frequent air raids there and on other on rebel-held areas.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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