Syria's Assad raises prospect of military clash with U.S. and calls out Trump
U.S. president called Assad an 'animal' after suspected gas attack in April on rebel-held town
The United States should learn the lesson of Iraq and leave Syria, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview, responding to U.S. President Donald Trump's description of him as an "animal" by saying "what you say is what you are."
In the interview with RT, the Russian state's international broadcaster, Assad raised the prospect of conflict with U.S. forces if they do not leave Syria. He vowed to recover territory where U.S. troops have deployed, either through negotiations with Washington's Syrian allies or by force.
Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, appears militarily unassailable in the war that has killed an estimated half a million people, uprooted around six million people in the country, and driven another five million abroad as refugees.
After recovering swaths of territory, Assad now controls the biggest part of Syria. But tracts remain outside his control at the borders with Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
That includes large parts of the north and east where U.S. special forces deployed during the fight against Islamic State, supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Assad said the government had "started now opening doors for negotiations" with the SDF, whose main component, the Kurdish YPG, has mostly avoided conflict with Damascus in the war.
"This is the first option. If not, we're going to resort to … liberating those areas by force. We don't have any other options, with the Americans or without the Americans," he said.
"The Americans should leave, somehow they're going to leave," he said.
"They came to Iraq with no legal basis, and look what happened to them. They have to learn the lesson. Iraq is no exception, and Syria is no exception. People will not accept foreigners in this region anymore."
'Strong and lasting footprint'
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 was followed by an insurgency that lasted years.
Trump said in April he wanted to withdraw American troops from Syria relatively soon, but also voiced a desire to leave a "strong and lasting footprint."
U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on April 30 the United States and its allies would not want to pull troops out of Syria before diplomats win the peace.
Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF, said in response to Assad's comments that a military solution "is not a solution that can lead to any result," and would "lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people."
The SDF wants a "democratic system based on diversity, equality, freedom and justice" for all the country's ethnic and religious groups, he added in a voice message to Reuters.
Trump called Assad an "animal" after a suspected poison gas attack on a rebel-held town near Damascus in April. Medical aid organisations said the attack killed dozens of people.
The attack triggered U.S., French and British missile strikes against what they called chemical weapons targets, the first co-ordinated Western strikes against Assad's government of the war. But the Western retaliation had no impact on the wider conflict, in which Assad's forces continued their advances.
In his interview, Assad reiterated the government's denial of blame for the chemical attack. Asked if he had a nickname for Trump similar to the "animal" comment, Assad replied: "This is not my language, so I cannot use similar language. This is his language. It represents him, and I think there is a well-known principle, that what you say is what you are."
Downplaying Iran's role
Assad also sought in his interview to minimize the extent to which his government receives support from Iran.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through a network of activists in Syria, says at least 68 Iranian and pro-Iranian forces have been killed in Israeli strikes since April.
Israel, which is alarmed by Tehran's influence in Syria, said it destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria in May, after Iranian forces in Syria fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Moscow on Thursday for talks focusing on Syria. Lieberman's Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, said the two would discuss the situation in southwestern Syria, along its border with Israel.
Russian news reports said Moscow wants to cut a deal that would see Russian military police deployed to areas near Israel. The agreement envisages Iranian forces pulling out from the entire area and Syrian rebels there surrendering heavy weapons.
Assad said Iran's presence in Syria was limited to officers assisting the army. Apparently referring to the May 10 attack by Israel, Assad said: "We had tens of Syrian martyrs and wounded soldiers, not a single Iranian casualty."
Asked if there was anything Syria could do to stop Israeli air strikes, he said the only option was to improve air defences, "and we are doing that." Syria's air defences were much stronger than before, thanks to Russia, he added.
Assad said the end of the war was getting closer with "every victory," but accused adversaries in the West and the region of trying to obstruct that and "hindering the political process."
With files from The Associated Press