Skip to main content

Syria's Assad says Russia is saving Middle East from destruction

Syrian authorities detain opposition figure for criticising Russian raids
'Welcome to the quagmire': US President Barak Obama tells Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a cartoon by Carlos Latuff for Middle East Eye

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in comments broadcast on Sunday that the success of Russia's military intervention in his country's civil war was vital for the whole Middle East.

"The alliance between Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran must succeed or else the whole region will be destroyed," he said in an interview broadcast by Iranian state television.

"The chances of success for this coalition are great and not insignificant," Assad said in his interview, according to an extract posted on Twitter, warning that the price Syria's allies pay "will certainly be high".

He called on Western countries, which have along with Gulf allies carried out air strikes on IS since September 2014, to join forces in order to fight "terrorists".

"If these states join the fight against terrorists in a serious and sincere manner, at least in terms of stopping them getting support, we will achieve results much faster," Assad said.

His comments came as the the Syrian authorities detained a prominent opposition figure on Sunday for criticising Russian airstrikes in Syria.

Munzer Khaddam, spokesman for the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, was stopped at a checkpoint near Damascus, an official from his group told AFP.

"He has been detained in an unknown location," the source said, adding that Khaddam's mobile telephone was turned off when they tried to call him.

Khaddam's wife said he had telephoned her from the checkpoint and informed her of "an arrest warrant from a section of military security".

On Thursday, Khaddam wrote critical comments on Facebook about the airstrikes that Russia, a long-time ally of Damascus, launched against rebels groups in Syria the previous day.

"The Syrian crisis is nowhere near being solved as some dreamers think, and the Russian intervention further complicates" the conflict, he wrote.

He added that a Russian military presence would only serve to attract more militants to Syria.

It is the second time that the 67-year-old writer and university professor has been stopped by the authorities since the uprising broke out in Syria in 2011.

In December 2013, Khaddam was briefly detained at a military checkpoint in the coastal town of Tartus in northwest Syria. 

He was jailed for his political views from 1982 to 1994.

Although the group to which he belongs is generally tolerated by President Bashar al-Assad's government, several members of the political alliance are in jail in Syria.

On 20 November, 2013, top NCCDC official Rajaa Nasser was arrested by a security patrol in Damascus. Another member, Abdel Aziz Khair, has been in detention since September 2012.

Russia and Iran defending Assad's 'state terror'

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday that Moscow's bombing campaign in Syria is "unacceptable," warning that Russia was making a "grave mistake".

"The steps Russia is taking and the bombing campaign in Syria is unacceptable in any way for Turkey ... Unfortunately, Russia is making a grave mistake," Erdogan told a news conference.

Given Moscow's friendly relations with Turkey, its actions in Syria are "worrying and disturbing," Erdogan said, warning that they would "isolate Russia in the region".

Russia and Turkey have long been at odds over the crisis in Syria, with Moscow emerging as Assad's key international backer and Ankara urging his overthrow as the only solution to the conflict.

Erdogan said that it is "not only Russia but also Iran defending (Assad) who is waging state terror" in Syria.

Russia, which began strikes in Syria last week, insisted it was only targeted the Islamic State (IS) militants in its airstrikes.

But Turkey and several countries have said that Syrian civilians as well as moderate rebel groups fighting pro-Assad forces were hit by the Russian strikes.

On Saturday, Moscow claimed that Russian airstrikes in Syria have sown "panic," forcing some 600 IS "militants" to abandon their positions and head to Europe.

"Our intelligence shows that militants are leaving areas under their control. Panic and desertion have started in their ranks," Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov, a senior official with the Russian General Staff, said in a statement.

"Some 600 mercenaries have abandoned their positions and are trying to find their way into Europe," he added.

But Moscow's claims were met with scepticism, as Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron on Saturday accused Russia of backing "butcher" Assad with its airstrikes, which he said were often not aimed at IS.

Russian strikes 'strengthening' IS militants

His comments came as British intelligence forces observed that only one in 20 Russian air strikes were hitting IS targets, according to Britain's defence minister.

"It's absolutely clear that Russia is not discriminating between ISIL [Islamic State] and the legitimate Syrian opposition groups and, as a result, they are actually backing the butcher Assad and helping him and really making the situation worse," said Cameron.

"They have been condemned across the Arab world for what they have done, and I think the Arab world is right about that."

The United States has also accused the Kremlin of trying to buttress Assad, with President Barack Obama describing the airstrikes that began on Wednesday as "a recipe for disaster".

Putin "doesn't distinguish between ISIL and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr Assad go," Obama told reporters.

"From their perspective, they're all terrorists. And that's a recipe for disaster."

The American president said he had made it clear to Putin during their meeting in New York earlier this week that it's not possible to "rehabilitate" Assad in the eyes of Syrians.

"This is not a judgment I'm making," he added. "It is a judgment that the overwhelming majority of Syrians make."

Obama also noted that he would not join the Russian military campaign as Moscow acts in a way to support Assad rather than going after IS.

"The Russian policy is driving those folks [rebels] underground, or creating a situation in which they are de-capacitated, and it's only strengthening ISIL," he said.