Assad says Syria able to face Israel

In his first reaction to Israel's weekend airstrikes, President Bashar Assad said Tuesday that Syria is capable of facing Israel, but stopped short of threatening retaliation for the attacks near the Syrian capital of Damascus.
U.S. secretary of state asks Russia to take tougher stance on Syria 2:53

In his first reaction to Israel's weekend airstrikes, President Bashar Assad said Tuesday that Syria is capable of facing Israel, but stopped short of threatening retaliation for the attacks near the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Assad spoke after a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who paid an unexpected visit to Damascus. Iran is one of Syria's closest allies.

Canadian MPs debate Syria tonight

MPs in the House of Commons in Ottawa will hold an emergency "take-note" debate on the crisis in Syria, starting about 6:30 p.m. ET.

No vote will be held after the debate, but it's a chance for government and opposition speakers to have their say in areas such as the implications of chemical weapons use, or Canada's potential involvement in the conflict.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, and opposition foreign affairs critics Paul Dewar and Bob Rae are expected to kick off the debate.

Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia have become increasingly involved in Syria's civil war, supporting the regime with fighters, military advisers and weapons. Syria and Hezbollah have been key to Iran's expansion of influence into the Arab world, and a collapse of the Assad regime would be a major blow to Tehran.

"We are fully confident that Syria will emerge victorious from the crisis," Salehi said.

Commenting on the airstrikes for the first time, Assad said Syria is "capable of facing Israel's ventures" while Salehi said "it's high time to deter the Israeli occupation" from launching more attacks.

However, Israel's airstrikes on Friday and Sunday put Syria and Iran in a difficult position because they would run the risk of drawing Israel's powerful army into the war if they retaliate. At the same time, inaction further weakens Assad's already shaky claims to being the leader of the Arab world's hard-line, anti-Israeli camp.

Israel has not formally acknowledged the strikes, but Israeli officials have said they were targeting shipments of advanced Iranian weapons possibly bound for Hezbollah. The officials have said the aim was to deprive Hezbollah of weapons, not to raise tensions with Syria.

Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines since the uprising against Assad, which erupted in March 2011, turned into an armed insurgency and finally a civil war.

On Tuesday, Assad said Israel is supporting terrorists, a reference to the anti-regime rebels, and that Syria is "capable of facing Israel's ventures." He did not say what action he would take, if any.

Salehi adopted a slightly harsher tone, saying that "it is time to deter the Israeli occupiers from carrying out these aggressions against the peoples of the region." He also stopped short of threatening retaliation.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday argued the U.S. case to Russian President Vladimir Putin for Moscow to take a tougher stance on Syria.

Putin and Kerry met in the Kremlin more than three hours behind schedule. The former Massachusetts senator thanked Putin for Russia's co-operation on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. On Syria, Kerry said the U.S. and Russia share common interests: Stability in the region, a desire to stop the growth of extremism and hopes for a peaceful transition in Syria.

"It is my hope that today we'll be able to dig into that a little bit and see if we can find some common ground," Kerry said going into the talks.

Putin, through an interpreter, said that he looked forward to working together with U.S. leader on the problems of today.

Russia is the most powerful ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and U.S. officials had said that Kerry hoped to change Moscow's thinking on Syria with two new angles: American threats to arm the Syrian rebels and evidence of chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime.

Russia warns against arming rebels

Russia has joined efforts with China at the UN Security Council to veto draft resolutions condemning Assad's crackdown on an uprising and threatening sanctions against his regime. The Russian leadership has continued to refuse to back calls for Assad to step down, insisting that the opposition should be persuaded to sit down for talks with the regime without any preconditions. Russian officials also have strongly warned the West against arming rebels, saying it could place weapons in terrorists' hands and may lead to even more bloodshed.

U.S. officials are hoping Syria's behavior could shift Russia's stance.

"We have consistently, in our conversations with the Russians and others, pointed clearly to Assad's behavior as proof that further support for the regime is not in the interest of the Syrian people or in the interest of the countries that have in the past supported Assad," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

U.S. officials said the administration doesn't believe the weekend activity will force President Barack Obama's hand, noting that the main U.S. concern is the use of chemical weapons by Assad, while Israel's top concern is conventional weapons falling into the hands of its enemies.

U.S. considering options

Israel's actions put Damascus and Moscow on notice that the U.S. and its allies may not wait for an international green light to become more actively engaged in the Syrian conflict. The administration said last week it was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels or taking other aggressive steps to turn the tide of the two-year-old civil war toward the rebels.

At the same time, Israeli involvement in the war carries risks. Instead of prodding Russia into calling for Assad's ouster, it could bring greater Arab sympathy for Assad and prompt deeper involvement from Iran and Hezbollah, actors committed as much to preserving Assad as to fighting the Jewish state.

Also Tuesday, a Palestinian militant group's spokesman said Assad's regime has given a Palestinian militant group the go-ahead to set up missiles to attack Israel in the wake of the recent Israeli airstrikes on Damascus.

Palestinians march in solidarity with the Syrian regime in the West Bank city of Nablus on Monday. On Tuesday, a Palestinian militant group's spokesman said the Assad regime has given it the go-ahead to set up missiles to attack Israel in the wake of recent airstrikes on the Syrian capital. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Associated Press)

In that light, the Assad regime's decision to allow a minor Syria-based Palestinian group to prepare for attacks is largely seen as a face-saving gesture unlikely to escalate the confrontation with Israel.

"Syria has given the green light to set up missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets," Anwar Raja of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command told The Associated Press.

He said authorities also told the PFLP-GC that the group could carry out attacks independently without consulting Syrian authorities.

Chemical weapons a concern

The Obama administration opened the door to new military options in Syria after declaring last week it strongly believed the Assad regime used chemical weapons in two attacks in March. Two days after that announcement, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said arming the Syrian rebels was a policy consideration.

Until now, U.S. efforts to bolster the rebels' fighting skills and gather intelligence on the groups operating inside Syria have been limited to small training camps in Jordan, according to two U.S. officials who weren't authorized to speak about secret activities and demanded anonymity.

There are several options for escalation, ranging from arming the rebels to targeted airstrikes and no-fly zones. However, arming the rebels is the most likely escalation, officials said.


With files from CBC News