In an interview with Russian state television aired on Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued his now-predictable condemnation of the West.
Regime forces are in the last stages of reclaiming the entirety of the city of Aleppo — once Syria's economic capital but now, in many parts, a hollowed-out ghost town. The government offensive was backed by Iran-sponsored militias and Russian airstrikes, with rights groups and observers saying the indiscriminate shelling of civilians in rebel-held areas could constitute war crimes.
Assad deems such complaints to be an apologia for “terrorists,” what he labels most of the opposition factions fighting against his rule. He accused the United States and its Western allies of abetting the Islamic State, including in its renewed advance on the ancient city of Palmyra, which the regime had recaptured with great pomp and ceremony not long ago. (A U.S.-led coalition is in the midst of wresting control of the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State.)
When asked about Western calls for a cease-fire, he claimed that the real message coming from President Obama and others was: "'You went too far in defeating the terrorists; that shouldn't happen. You should tell the Syrians to stop this; we have to keep the terrorists and to save them.'”
But President-elect Donald Trump's views on the Middle East seem to give Syria's embattled leader cause for optimism.
“His rhetoric during the campaign was positive regarding the terrorism, which is our priority today,” said Assad, who added that concerns over Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric could be overblown. “Anything else is not priority, so, I wouldn't focus on anything else; the rest is American, let's say, internal matters, I wouldn't worry about.”
This is not totally surprising. Not long after Trump's election victory in November, Assad suggested to a Portuguese state broadcaster that Trump could be a “natural ally” for the Syrian regime. Trump has talked tough on fighting the Islamic State but rejected the idea of instigating more regime change in the Middle East. The Obama administration, while launching a withering air war against the militant organization, has sought to also support a constellation of rebel factions seeking to oust Assad.
The Syrian president then made a point that was in keeping with Trump's foreign policy discussions, arguing that a rapprochement between the Kremlin and a Trump White House would help ease the crisis. Russia is a vital Syrian ally, and its intervention in the country's hideous conflict tipped the balance in Assad's favor and enabled the offensive on rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
“I think the world will be in a different place, because the most important thing is the relation between Russia and the United States,” said Assad, according to a transcript published by Russia Today. “If he goes towards that relation, most of the tension around the world will be pacified. That's very important for us in Syria.”
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