BEIRUT—Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview released on Friday that the United States is welcome to join the battle against terrorists in Syria—as long as it is in cooperation with his government and respects the country’s sovereignty.
In an interview with Yahoo News, Assad said he has not had any communication—direct or indirect—with President Donald Trump or any official from the new U.S. administration.
But the Syrian leader appeared to make a gesture to the new U.S. president in the interview, saying he welcomes Trump’s declaration that he will make it a priority to fight terrorism—a goal Assad said he also shares.
However, Assad’s government has labelled all armed opposition to his rule—including the U.S.-backed rebels—as “terrorists.”
“We agree about this priority,” Assad said of Trump. “That’s our position in Syria, the priority is to fight terrorism.”
Syria’s six-year civil war has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced half the country’s population. The country is shattered and the chaos has enabled the rise of the ISIS terrorist group, which in a 2014 blitz seized a third of both Syria and neighboring Iraq. ISIS, responsible for several deadly attacks around the world, has declared an Islamic caliphate on the territory it controls.
Assad also told Yahoo News that his country would welcome U.S. “participation” in the fight against terrorism but it has to be in cooperation with the Syrian government.
Assad’s comment ignored the U.S.-led international coalition, which has been targeting ISIS and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria with airstrikes since September 2014. The United States also has advisers in Syria along with predominantly Kurdish fighters north of the country who are fighting against ISIS.
“If you want to start genuinely, as United States … it must be through the Syrian government,” Assad said. “We are here, we are the Syrians, we own this country as Syrians, nobody else, nobody would understand it like us.”
“So, you cannot defeat the terrorism without cooperation with the people and the government” of Syria, he added.
The Syrian government has always blamed the United States for backing opposition fighters trying to remove Assad from power. The rebels formed a serious threat to the Syrian leader until 2015, when Russia joined Syria’s war backing Assad’s forces and turned the balance of power in his favor.
“We invited the Russians, and the Russians were genuine regarding this issue. If the Americans are genuine, of course they are welcome, like any other country that wants to defeat and to fight the terrorists. Of course, with no hesitation we can say that,” Assad said in English.
But when asked if he wants American troops to come to Syria to help with the fight against ISIS, Assad said that sending troops is not enough—a genuine political position on respecting Syria’s sovereignty and unity is also needed.
“All these factors would lead to trust, where you can send your troops. That’s what happened with the Russians; they didn’t only send their troops,” Assad added.
Assad would not comment on Trump’s move to bar Syrian refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, calling it an “American sovereignty” issue.
But he appeared to offer some support at last, saying that there are “definitely terrorists” among the millions of Syrians seeking refuge in the West, and that it doesn’t have to be a “significant” number to be a threat.
“You don’t need a significant number to commit atrocities,” he said, noting that the 9/11 attacks were pulled off by less than 20 terrorists, “So it’s not about the number, it’s about the quality, it’s about the intentions.”
Excerpts of Assad’s comments were aired on Thursday while the full interview with Yahoo News ran on Friday.
In other developments Friday, the Kremlin said that Russia and Turkey have agreed to improve coordination in Syria to prevent further friendly fire incidents after a Russian airstrike killed three Turkish soldiers and wounded 11 the day before.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the accidental strike near the town of al-Bab in northern Syria prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss better cooperation in fighting ISIS in the area. In a signal that the incident hasn’t hurt a Russia-Turkey rapprochement, Peskov said that Erdogan is set to visit Russia next month.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said the Turkish casualties on Thursday were the result of “faulty coordination” in Syria and showed “there is a need for a much closer coordination.”
Epoch Times contributed to this report.