BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned in comments broadcast Thursday that he would wage war to expel U.S. troops from northeastern Syria if dialogue fails to bring the area back under government control.
It was not the first time that Assad has threatened to attack U.S. troops, but it was his most explicit expression yet of his determination to rid Syria of American forces.
In an interview with RT, Russia’s state-owned international broadcaster, Assad said the United States should heed the lessons of Iraq and get out of Syria before it is forced to leave.
The Syrian government already is involved in negotiations with local factions to bring the area back under its control, he said. If the dialogue fails, he said, “we are going to resort to liberating the area by force, with the Americans or without the Americans.”
“The Americans should leave somehow. They are going to leave,” Assad added.
In Washington, the Pentagon cautioned against any attack on U.S. forces or their allies in the area.
“Any interested party in Syria should understand that attacking U.S. forces or our coalition partners would be a bad policy,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at a briefing when asked about Assad’s remarks.
The Syrian leader is in the process of asserting his authority over the last few pockets of opposition-held territory after seven years of warfare during which vast areas of the country slipped out of government control.
Northeastern Syria, where Syrian Kurds have declared a self-
governing autonomous region, is the biggest territory still outside the remit of the government. The United States maintains about 2,000 troops there, helping a local Kurdish-led militia battle the Islamic State militant group. In the process, the Kurds have assumed de facto control over a vast area of mostly desert terrain amounting to nearly a third of Syrian territory.
President Trump has said he is keen to pull the troops out as soon as possible, but the U.S. military has persuaded him to allow them to remain at least until a last pocket of Islamic State fighters is vanquished along the Syria-Iraq border.
It remains unclear, however, under what circumstances the troops eventually will leave and what will happen to their Kurdish allies, who say they are determined to maintain control over the area.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella force created and armed by the United States as a vehicle to fight the Islamic State, is already facing a fledgling insurgency from the mostly Arab population. In the city of Raqqa, once the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, demonstrations staged in recent days have called for the return of government control and have been suppressed by force, according to local news reports.
In his warning, Assad invoked the U.S. experience in Iraq, where American troops quickly faced a widespread insurgency. According to U.S. military and Iraqi officials, the Syrian government helped fuel the insurgency by aiding the passage of hundreds of foreign fighters across the Syrian border.
“They came to Iraq with no legal basis, and look what happened to them,” Assad said of U.S. forces. “They have to learn this lesson. Iraq is no exception, and Syria is no exception. People don’t accept foreigners in this region anymore.”
Assad was speaking a little over a week after his government declared that it was in full control of the suburbs around Damascus, the Syrian capital, for the first time in seven years.
The Syrian army is now preparing for an offensive to recapture the parts of southwest Syria bordering Israel and Jordan that are still under rebel control, one of three significant areas outside the government’s grip. Israel has warned that it will not tolerate having Iranian advisers and the Shiite militias they support move closer to its borders, making southern Syria the likely next flash point of the war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors developments in the war, said Iranian advisers and allied Hezbollah fighters are preparing to leave the area under the terms of a deal being negotiated by Russia and Israel for Iranian-backed forces to pull back and avert a bigger conflict. There has been no confirmation of such a deal, however, from Russia, Israel or Iran.
Assad declined to say how much longer the war will continue, but he reiterated that he intends to bring all parts of the country back under his authority. “We’re going to liberate every area. It is impossible for us to leave any area outside of government control,” he said.