Assad warns Syria's Kurds that US will not protect them
President Bashar al-Assad warned Syria's Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Sunday that their ally the United States would not protect them against any Turkish offensive as Washington looks to withdraw its troops.
The US is set to pull out its soldiers from Syria after allied Kurdish-led forces capture the Islamic State (IS) group's last holdout in the war-torn country.
Any withdrawal risks leaving the Kurds exposed to a long threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey, which views some Kurdish fighters as "terrorists".
"We tell those groups who are betting on the Americans that the Americans will not protect you," Assad said in a televised speech, reported by the AFP news agency.
"The Americans do not hold you in their heart... They will put you in their pocket so you can be a bargaining chip."
Apart from fighting IS, the Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria's civil war, working towards semi-autonomy in the northeast of the country.
The looming prospect of a US withdrawal, announced in December, has sent them scrambling to rebuild ties with the Damascus government, but talks so far have failed to reach a compromise.
Reuters reported a senior US general said on Sunday that the US would have to sever its military assistance to the SDF if the fighters partner with Assad or Russia.
The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is commander of the US-led coalition battling IS in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the US prepares to withdraw from Syria.
LaCamera warned that US law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as with Assad's military.
Assad warned: "If you don't prepare yourselves to defend your country and resist, you will be nothing but a slave to the Ottomans," using a historic term for Turks.
"No one will protect you except your state. No one will defend you except the Syrian Arab army," he said.
'Every inch of Syria will be liberated'
The SDF, which has fought IS with backing from the US-led coalition since 2015, on Sunday met to discuss "the future of relations with the Syrian government".
The SDF stressed the need for Damascus to recognise the "special status" of the Kurdish-Arab alliance, as well as the Kurdish semi-autonomous region.
In a statement, it also expressed a "willingness to solve problems with Turkey through dialogue," based on "mutual respect".
Almost eight years into a war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions, Assad's forces control almost two-thirds of the country.
Just two areas remain beyond its control: the militant-held northwestern region of Idlib, and about a third of the country under control of Kurdish-led forces.
"Every inch of Syria will be liberated," Assad said in Sunday's speech.