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Sep 29, 2014 7:11 PM

AP INTERVIEW: US should hit all militants in Syria

The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) Syria's foreign minister said Monday that the U.S.-led bombing campaign should be expanded to target other militant groups besides the Islamic State group, noting that the fight against terrorism has aligned the Syrian regime with its Western and Arab opponents in a fight against a common enemy.

"They have the same ideology. They have the same extremist ideology," Walid al-Moallem told The Associated Press in urging a widening of the U.S.-led aerial campaign to include all Islamic rebel factions fighting President Bashar Assad's government.

Speaking earlier at the U.N. General Assembly, the Syrian foreign minister denounced what he called the United States' "dual policy" of striking at some militants in Syria while providing money, weapons and training to others, calling it a recipe for more violence and terrorism.

Such behavior creates a "fertile ground" for the continued growth of extremism in countries including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, al-Moallem told world leaders.

Washington and Arab allies opened their air assault against the extremist group last week in Syria, going after the group's military facilities, training camps, heavy weapons and oil installations. The campaign expands upon the airstrikes the United States has been conducting against the militants in Iraq since early August.

Some of the initial strikes in Syria targeted the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syria affiliate, hitting several of its facilities and killing dozens of its fighters. Washington said it was trying to take out an al-Qaida cell known as the Khorasan Group that the U.S. says was actively plotting attacks against Americans and Western interests.

On Monday, al-Moallem said the Islamic State group, the Nusra Front and all Islamic groups fighting the Assad regime were on the same side and all should be hit.

Asked whether the strikes should include the loose umbrella rebel group known as the Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the U.S. and its allies, he said that group "does not exist anymore." In the interview, al-Moallem tried to position his country as being on the same side as the U.S.-led coalition. Asked whether Syria considered itself now aligned with the West because both were fighting the same enemy, al-Moallem replied: "This is the fact."

"We are fighting ISIS, they are fighting ISIS," he said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms.

In an interview aired Sunday, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the bombing campaign could ultimately help Assad stay in power. While the White House continues to call for Assad's departure and has consistently condemned his actions in a three-year civil war, diplomatic negotiations to oust him have largely stalled and Obama has shown no appetite for using military power to force him out.

Given that the Islamic State group is one of the Syrian government's strongest opponents, the strikes have created an unexpected alignment between the U.S. and Assad that the Syrian president is seeking to exploit in order to gain legitimacy.

Last month, al-Moallem warned at a news conference in Damascus that any strike that was not coordinated with the Assad government would be considered as aggression.

But on Monday he denied saying that coordination was necessary, adding that Damascus was satisfied with simply being informed of any U.S.-led action, which he said the Obama administration did before the start last week of the aerial campaign in Syria.

He said the U.S. government sent three separate messages to Syria 24 hours before it launched its first airstrike on Sept. 23. The messages were identical, he said: "We (the U.S.) are not after the Syrian army or the Syrian government."

He said there have been no further messages as the U.S.-led coalition has ramped up its bombing campaign, "but it's OK."

"Until today, we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and in Iraq, we are satisfied," he said.

Asked about Syria's position on the five Arab countries that have joined the bombing campaign in Syria, al-Moallem said: "We were not asked about them, it's up to them."

"As long as they are hitting ISIS" Syria would not criticize their participation, he said.

However, in his U.N. speech, al-Moallem denounced members of the U.S.-led coalition as key supporters of "armed terrorist groups." He did not name them, but Syria regularly accuses Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting the opposition fighting to topple Assad.

The U.S.-led coalition also includes Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Al-Moallem said the Syrian military is fighting to regain territory captured by the Islamic State group, but a political solution without any influence from outsiders is the only way out of the civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people and driven a third of Syria's population some 9 million people from their homes.

"The political solution has to be based on what the Syrian people agree between themselves," he said.

Al Moallem said the "good offices" of the new U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, are needed, but this doesn't mean that he has to interfere" in talks which must take place in Syria.

He said participants must be people who are nationalists, believe in combatting terrorism, and in building a future for Syria that respects the "the will of the Syrian people" who re-elected Assad in March.

As for the communique agreed on by major powers at a Geneva conference in June 2012 calling for the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria which has served as a basis for negotiations al Moallem said it will be up to the Syrian people to decide whether it's still valid.


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