Opinion

Safe zones not 'realistic,' Syrian president tells news outlet

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected the creation of safe zones for refugees and displaced people in his country, an idea supported by U.S. President Donald Trump, in an interview with Yahoo News released on Friday.

Americans 'welcome' to co-ordinate with Damascus to fight ISIS, says Syrian president

President Bashar al-Assad said in a 34-minute news media interview released Friday said he would welcome U.S. troops in Syria to help fight ISIS militants if there is clear respect for Syria's 'sovereignty and unity.' (Syrian Arab News Agency via Associated Press)

President Bashar al-Assad rejected the creation of safe zones for refugees and displaced people in Syria, an idea supported by U.S. President Donald Trump, in an interview with Yahoo News released on Friday.

He signalled he would welcome co-operation with Washington in the fight against the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), however, as long as the United States took a "clear political position" on Syria's sovereignty and unity.

Assad has cautiously welcomed the new U.S. administration's focus on fighting the jihadists, in which Trump has held out the possibility of co-operation with Damascus ally Russia.

Under former U.S. president Barack Obama, the United States called for Assad's departure and supported rebels fighting to unseat him.

The Syrian government has rejected the creation of safe zones, favoured by rebel backers including Qatar, which could ratchet up U.S. military involvement in Syria.

"This is where you can have natural safe zones, which is our country. They don't need safe zones at all. It's not a realistic idea at all," Assad said.

Stability 'more viable' than safe zones

"It's much more viable, much more practical and less costly to have stability than to create safe zones."

Assad said safe zones would be at risk of attack from armed groups.

Children walk near damaged buildings in the rebel-held besieged city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Jan. 19. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters )

The United Nations also rejects safe zones, saying conditions in Syria, where battles rage on between multiple sides, are not suitable.

Trump has not provided details about the proposed safe zones, except to say he would have the Gulf states pay for them.

Much of the conflict is focused on a number of separate battles being waged against Islamic State: by Russian-backed Syrian government forces and their allies, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters, and Turkish-backed Syrian insurgents.

A man carries an injured child in the Syrian town of Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on Dec. 30, 2015, after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

The U.S. has deployed special forces to Syria to support the Kurdish YPG militia and its allies, and not in co-ordination with the Syrian army.

Assad said U.S. troops would be "welcome" in Syria to fight ISIS provided Washington co-ordinate with Damascus and recognize the sovereignty of his government.

"If the Americans are genuine, of course they are welcome. Like any other country, we want to defeat and to fight the terrorists," he said.

"Troops is part of the co-operation ... [but] you cannot talk about sending troops ... if you don't have a clear political position toward not only the terrorism, toward the sovereignty of Syria, toward the unity of Syria," he said.

"It must be through the Syria government."

Moscow said Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed setting up "genuine co-ordination" in the fight against ISIS and "other terrorist groups" in Syria during a phone call last month.

There has been no indication the United States would co-ordinate with Syria itself.

For now, U.S.-Russian co-operation is largely limited to ensuring that the two countries' air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized.

Denies mass hangings report 

Assad also dismissed a report by Amnesty International which said up to 13,000 prisoners had been executed at a military jail in Damascus since 2011.

World powers involved in the Syrian conflict have pushed diplomatic efforts to end the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of refugees.

Assad repeated that he would leave power if voted out by the Syrian people, and would consider an early presidential election after parliamentary polls are held. 

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