U.S., Bri­tain stand firm on de­mand for As­sad’s ouster

Govern­ment win in Aleppo seen as turn­ing point

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY CARLO MUNOZ

U.S. and Bri­tish de­fense chiefs said Thurs­day that they are stick­ing by their de­mand that Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad must go as part of any set­tle­ment of Syria’s bloody civil war, just days af­ter Mr. As­sad’s forces scored one of their big­gest vic­to­ries over rebels in Aleppo.

An in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent Mr. As­sad on Wed­nes­day praised Rus­sian-backed govern­ment forces for the suc­cess­ful “lib­er­a­tion” of Aleppo — once the coun­try’s largest cities and a ma­jor trad­ing and eco­nomic hub. Un­til this week, it was a ma­jor strong­hold for rebel forces fight­ing to over­throw the regime for the past five years.

In one in­ter­view, Mr. As­sad even com­pared the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the bat­tle for Aleppo to the birth of Christ and the rev­e­la­tion of the Qu­ran.

“We don’t see a fu­ture of Pres­i­dent As­sad in Syria. Even if he de­feats the op­po­si­tion in Aleppo, there is no vic­tory in bomb­ing hos­pi­tals and re­strict­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and end­ing up in a coun­try that you only con­trol 40 per­cent of,” Bri­tish De­fense Sec­re­tary Michael Fal­lon said in a joint press con­fer­ence in Lon­don on Thurs­day with U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter.

Mr. Carter noted that the Syr­ian regime’s cam­paign to break the rebels’ backs in Aleppo “re­flects an in­cred­i­ble bru­tal­ity on the part of the regime and also their back­ers, in­clud­ing Rus­sia.”

Re­gional ob­servers and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates blame Rus­sia’s dev­as­tat­ing bomb­ing cam­paign of rebel and civil­ian tar­gets in east­ern Aleppo as the turn­ing point in the bat­tle over the long-di­vided city.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­sisted that Mr. As­sad, who is backed by both Rus­sia and Iran, must be re­placed as part of any ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, say­ing the war has been so bru­tal that large parts of the Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion would never ac­cept him as their leader. But that de­mand is los­ing force in the face of the Syr­ian govern­ment’s re­cent bat­tle­field suc­cesses.

Mr. As­sad claimed in a re­cent in­ter­view that Aleppo marked a “his­toric vic­tory” that would be felt not just in Syria but across the re­gion.

Re­spond­ing to the Syr­ian pres­i­dent’s com­ments, Mr. Fal­lon replied sim­ply, “That is no vic­tory.”

Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry went fur­ther, call­ing the As­sad regime’s cam­paign to stamp out armed op­po­si­tion in Aleppo and the rest of the coun­try tan­ta­mount to a war crime.

“The As­sad regime is ac­tu­ally car­ry­ing out noth­ing short of a mas­sacre,” Mr. Kerry said dur­ing a Thurs­day brief­ing at the State De­part­ment.

He made the com­ments as the first of thou­sands of Syr­ian civil­ians and rebel fight­ers be­gan evac­u­at­ing en­claves of Aleppo for­merly con­trolled by antigov­ern­ment fac­tions.

Evac­uees re­port­edly came un­der fire as they at­tempted to flee por­tions of the city from para­mil­i­tary forces loyal to the As­sad regime.

Evac­u­a­tions were ini­tially slated to be­gin Wed­nes­day as part of a cease-fire deal ne­go­ti­ated among Tur­key, Rus­sia and mem­bers of the Syr­ian re­sis­tance. But reports claim­ing Ira­nian-backed mili­tias fight­ing on the regime’s be­half were pre­vent­ing civil­ians from evac­u­at­ing for­merly rebel-held ar­eas in the city threat­ened to scut­tle the agree­ment.

New terms guar­an­tee­ing safe pas­sage for Aleppo’s res­i­dents and rebel fight­ers, reached only af­ter a fre­netic eleventh-hour round of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween all par­ties, sal­vaged the deal.

A Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fig­ure said lo­cal coun­cils in Idlib and Aleppo prov­inces have been try­ing to find hous­ing for the new refugees, but he said many will have to stay in camps, ac­cord­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Tur­key, which sup­ports the op­po­si­tion, promised to treat the wounded, Brita Haj Has­san, a mem­ber of Aleppo’s lo­cal coun­cil now liv­ing in ex­ile in Brus­sels, told the AP.

But Mr. As­sad has vowed to con­tinue the fight to de­stroy all armed op­po­si­tion to his regime, say­ing the Syr­ian army’s next tar­get would be the north­west­ern city of Idlib, about 35 miles from Aleppo. A vic­tory in Idlib would give the govern­ment con­trol of the main land trans­porta­tion links be­tween Da­m­as­cus and Aleppo.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Buses were sent to the war-torn city of Aleppo to evac­u­ate res­i­dents un­der a cease-fire deal reached with rebels in the wake of a Rus­sian-backed as­sault that Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad called a suc­cess­ful “lib­er­a­tion.”

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