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UN: Syria demands US, French and Turkish forces withdraw immediately

Foreign minister says conditions fine for refugees to return, blames 'Western countries' for 'spreading irrational fears'
US-backed forces fighting Islamic State group in Syria (AFP/file photo)

Syria's foreign minister on Saturday denounced US, French and Turkish forces operating in his country as "occupying forces" and demanded that they leave immediately.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also called on Syrian refugees to come home, AFP reported, even though the country's war is now in its eighth year.

Moualem (AFP)

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had said in his remarks to the General Assembly on Friday that the international community and UN agencies must make the return of refugees to Syria "a priority".

Moualem, who also serves as deputy prime minister, said the foreign forces were on Syrian soil illegally, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, and "will be dealt with accordingly."

"They must withdraw immediately and without any conditions," he told the assembly.

Moualem insisted that the "war on terror is almost over" in Syria, where more than 360,000 people have died since 2011, with millions more uprooted from their homes.

He said Damascus would continue "fighting this sacred battle until we purge all Syrian territories" of both terror groups and "any illegal foreign presence."

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mostly training and advising both Kurdish forces and Syrian Arabs opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

France has more than 1,000 troops on the ground in the war-wracked country.

Moualem said that Israel was responsible for terrorism within Syria’s borders because of its frequent attacks, and that Damascus is determined to liberate the “occupied” Golan Heights, the Jerusalem Post reported.

On the issue of refugees, Moualem said the conditions were fine for them to return, and he blamed "some Western countries" for "spreading irrational fears" that prompted refugees to stay away.

"We welcome any assistance with reconstruction from those countries that were not part of the aggression on Syria," he said, according to Reuters. "The countries that offer only conditional assistance or continue to support terrorism, they are neither invited nor welcome to help."

The United States and the European Union have warned that there will be no reconstruction aid for Syria until there is a political agreement between Assad and the opposition to end the war.

UN diplomats say a recent agreement between Russia and Turkey to set up a buffer zone in the last major rebel stronghold of Idlib has created an opportunity to press ahead with such political talks.

The Russian-Turkish deal averted a large-scale assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces on the province, where three million people live.

The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front has cautiously accepted the 17 September deal, but the Jaysh al-Izza faction on Saturday rejected it, saying the zone would only encompass territory currently under rebel control.

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The group, with about 2,500 fighters, said the buffer zone should be carved out equally from both rebel-held territory and nearby zones controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

Moualem, however, in his speech said that the agreement had "clear deadlines" and expressed hope that military action will target militants from the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front who "will be eradicated".

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is working to soon convene the first meetings of a new committee comprised of government and opposition members to draft a post-war constitution for Syria and pave the way for elections.

Moualem laid out conditions for the Syrian government's participation in the committee, saying the panel's work should be restricted "to reviewing the articles of the current constitution," and warned against interference.

He said Syria will not accept outside dictates and anything seen as intervention in Syria's internal affairs will be rejected, the Associated Press reported.

"Any conditions or pre-conclusions on the work of the committee will not be accepted," AP cited him as saying.

The UN-led effort to bring Syria's warring factions together to draft a new constitution under which elections would be held has been stalled for years.