NEW YORK — Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday pledged to cooperate with international inspectors charged with dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program, and he vowed to crush a rebellion that he said has drawn strength from al-Qaeda and other internationalist jihadists.
Addressing a gathering of world leaders and foreign dignitaries at the U.N. General Assembly, the top Syrian diplomat sought to link President Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to prevail in a bloody civil war with the wider international war against terrorism.
On Sept., 11, 2001, he said, New Yorkers “were burned with the fire of extremism and bloodshed, the same way we are suffering now in Syria.”
Moualem portrayed the rebels, including foreign fighters drawn to the struggle, as barbaric extremists who “dismember human bodies into pieces while still alive and send their limbs to their families, just because those citizens are defending a unified Syria.”
Some of the most powerful insurgent groups fighting in the civil war espouse a radical Islamist ideology, but the United States and its allies have been attempting to bolster the strength of more moderate forces.
“The war on terror is not only Syria’s war,” Moualem warned. “One day, those terrorists will return to their respective countries, and then no country in the world will be immune from this terrorism, which recognizes no borders, nor geography.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Erin Pelton, denounced Moualem’s reference to the Sept. 11 attacks as being “as disingenuous as it is offensive.”
“The Assad regime’s brutal response to what began as peaceful demonstrations precipitated Syria’s crisis and has led to the deaths of over 100,000,” she said. “The fact that the Syrian regime has shelled hospitals and used chemical weapons on its own people demonstrates that it has adopted the very terrorist tactics that it today decries.”
The foreign minister’s speech came three days after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution requiring Syria to allow international inspectors immediate and unfettered access to its chemical weapons facilities and scientists.
“I assure you of Syria’s commitment to the full implementation of its obligations to disarm under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Moualem said. “However, there remains the challenge that is facing all of us: whether those who are supplying terrorists with these types of weapons will abide by their legal commitments, since terrorists, who used poisonous gas in my country, have received chemical agents from regional and Western countries that are well known to us.”
The Syrian government and Russia, its ally, have blamed rebels for an Aug. 21 gas attack that left more than 1,000 people dead. The United States and its allies have said the evidence is overwhelming that the government was responsible.
A U.N. chemical weapons team, headed by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, reported this month that it had collected evidence that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 rocket attack in the suburbs of Damascus, but it did not assign responsibility.
“Ladies and gentleman, we are the ones who were targeted by poisonous gases in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo,” Moualem said. The United Nations has yet to conclude its investigation into at least four other sites of alleged attacks, including Khan al-Assal, where Syrian officials claim government forces were exposed to a nerve agent.
British and French officials have said they believe that Syrian military personnel were poisoned during a March 19 gas attack in Khan al-Assal but maintain that the soldiers were struck in a friendly-fire incident.