Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that his government will move to reclaim territory currently held by U.S. troops and their allies, whether by negotiations or by force.
In an interview with RT, the Russian state’s international broadcaster, Assad said he had begun “now opening doors for negotiations” with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control much of northeastern Syria after expelling Islamic State militants there.
“This is the first option. If not, we’re going to resort to … liberating those areas by force,” Assad said, according to Reuters. “We don’t have any other options, with the Americans or without the Americans.”
Assad is now firmly in control of most of Syria after seven years of a brutal civil war that has killed an estimated 500,000 people, displaced roughly 6 million more inside the country, and forced another 5 million to flee abroad as refugees. Backed by allies Russia and Iran, Assad has recently crushed rebel and Islamic militant resistance in Damascus, the capital, as well as Aleppo and Homs, Syria’s other principal cities. (RELATED: ISIS Militants Leave Damascus Under Evacuation Deal As Assad Takes Full Control Of Capital)
Some parts of Syria remain outside the government’s control, however, including border areas near Jordan, Israel and Turkey. Nor does Assad’s reach extend into northeastern Syria, where U.S. special operations troops are helping the Kurdish-dominated SDF defeat the remnants of ISIS.
Assad has previously characterized Washington’s intervention in Syria as an illegal occupation of a sovereign country. In his Thursday interview, he reiterated that claim and warned that an extended American presence in Syria would result in an insurgency similar to the one that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“They came to Iraq with no legal basis, and look what happened to them,” Assad said. “They have to learn the lesson. Iraq is no exception, and Syria is no exception. People will not accept foreigners in this region anymore.”
President Donald Trump has struggled to define the military mission and broader strategic goals for Syria since inheriting the U.S. intervention from the Obama administration. In April, he said he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops “very soon” but also expressed support for leaving a “strong and lasting footprint.” (RELATED: US And Allies Put On A Good Show In Syria, But Did They Launch $100 Million Worth Of Missiles For Nothing?)
Trump is under pressure from inside and outside his administration to keep American troops in Syria as a way of maintaining leverage over Assad in post-war negotiations. Additionally, Iran hawks in Trump’s cabinet, along with regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, have argued for a long-term U.S. military intervention in Syria to counter Tehran’s influence there.
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