Assad vows no mercy in pursuing 'terrorist groups'

Turkish FM says he demanded end to bloodshed in meeting with Assad; Syrian ex-defense minister appears on TV to prove he's still alive.

Assad with defense minister and chief of staff 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Sana)
Assad with defense minister and chief of staff 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sana)
Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Tuesday his forces would continue to pursue “terrorist groups,” after Turkey pressed him to end a military assault aimed at crushing five-month-long protests against his rule.
Syria “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups in order to protect the stability of the country and the security of the citizens,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. But Assad said his government “is also determined to continue reforms... and is open to any help offered by friendly and brotherly states.”
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Syrian forces killed at least 30 people Tuesday and moved into a town near the Turkish border, an activist group said. Activists say at least 1,600 civilians have died since the uprising against Assad erupted in March.
On his return to Ankara, Davutoglu said he had demanded from the Syrian government that it stop killing civilians, and that Turkey would be monitoring events in Syria over the coming days. Describing his talks with Assad as “frank and friendly,” Davutoglu also said his government would maintain contacts with all parts of Syrian society.
Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Turkey was spurred to engage with Syria more deeply after several Arab states pulled their ambassadors from Damascus.
“The problems with Turkey come against the background of the withdrawal of ambassadors from several Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia,” Levitt said. “Syrians coming to Turkey are telling all kinds of stories, so it’s not like this is happening in a vacuum.
“It’s telling that the Saudis, who are in favor of stability and not in favor of public protests, have withdrawn their ambassador,” he said, adding Riyadh’s intervention may be seen as an effort to portray itself as “protector” of the Sunni Muslim world.
Still, Levitt noted that the Arab League has made clear that it opposes any consideration of Libya-style military intervention.
Events took a bizarre turn Tuesday when Gen. Ali Habib, Syria’s defense minister, went on state television to refute reports he had died. Habib blamed “foreign news organizations” for spreading misinformation to defame Syria’s “courageous Defense Ministry.”
Syrian opposition websites reported Tuesday that Habib – whose departure Damascus attributed to ill health – had been found dead in his home.
Meanwhile, Egypt followed Turkey in condemning the Assad regime’s crackdown, with Foreign Minister Muhammad Amr saying he fears the Syrian revolt is “heading toward the point of no return” and calling for an immediate end to the bloodshed.
Cairo’s state-run MENA news agency reported Amr called for an “immediate end to shootings,” saying that “reforms that are soaked in the blood of the martyrs who are dying daily are of no use.” He also called for a dialogue including “all segments of Syrian society” to help end the violence.
In Damascus, Davutoglu held six hours of meetings with Syrian officials, including a two-hour session alone with Assad. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked the Turkish foreign minister to reinforce a demand from Washington that Syria return the army to barracks immediately and release prisoners.
The Turkish foreign minister said Turkey hoped for a peaceful transition in Syria resulting in Syrian people determining their own future.
Ankara has advised Assad to enact reforms that will pave the way for Syria to move to a multiparty political system, but earned a sharp rebuke on Sunday when an Assad adviser said Syria would not accept interference in its affairs.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a softer line on the uprising, describing it as a domestic issue for Turkey, because of their 850km. shared border.
Saudi Arabia this week issued a blunt warning that Assad risked turmoil unless he stopped the bloodshed and adopted reforms. This week, Kuwait and Bahrain followed the kingdom in recalling their ambassadors.
The withdrawal of envoys left Assad with few diplomatic friends other than Iran. Western states have imposed sanctions on his top officials, while states with close ties to Damascus such as Russia and Turkey have warned the Syrian leader he is running out of time.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East