BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad said it was too early to say whether he would run for re-election next year, as he accused neighbor Turkey of harboring “terrorists” along its border who would soon turn against their hosts.
The comments by Assad, who spoke in an interview with Turkey’s private Halk TV, came as heavy clashes in the north Friday pitted mainstream rebels and Kurdish militias against Al-Qaeda-linked fighters. Ironically, the weekly anti-government demonstrations were staged under the title “Thank You Turkey,” a key backer of the rebels.
The interview was the latest in a series the Syrian president has given to foreign media as part of a charm offensive in the wake of the Russian-brokered deal that averted the threat of a U.S. airstrike over an August chemical weapons attack, which killed hundreds of people.
“If I have a feeling that the Syrian people want me to be president in the coming period I will run for the post,” he said. “If the answer is no, I will not run and I don’t see a problem in that.”
Assad used the interview to attack Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warning Ankara would pay “a high price” for allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria from its territory to fight Syrian government forces.
“This government, represented by Erdogan, is responsible for the blood of tens of thousands of Syrians, and is responsible for the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure,” Assad said. It is also “responsible for endangering security of the region, not only Syria.”
“You cannot hide terrorists in your pocket. They are like a scorpion, which will eventually sting you,” Assad added, saying Muslim extremists from more than 80 countries are coming to Syria by sneaking across the border with Turkey.
Assad dismissed long circulating rumors that his secretive younger brother, Maher Assad, a top army brigadier general, had been wounded in an assassination attempt.
“All rumors about our family during the crisis are baseless lies,” Assad said, and added about Maher: “He is present and on top of his work, at his post and in good health.”
The younger Assad commands elite troops tasked with protecting Damascus from rebels on the city’s outskirts.
Meanwhile, heavy fighting was underway in different parts of Syria, including the southern regions of Deraa and Qunaitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to anti-government activists.
Clashes also continued between Kurdish gunmen and members of Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), mostly in the northern provinces of Hassakeh and Aleppo, killing at least 19 people, activists said.
In the city of Azaz in Aleppo province, the Northern Storm Free Syrian Army brigade and Kurdish fighters were both attacking the ISIS fighters, according to pro-opposition media.
An activist affiliated with Syrian rebels, who identified himself as Abu Raed, said one fighter from Northern Storm was killed in Azaz.
ISIS fighters also battled Kurdish forces around the town of Ras al-Ain, said a Kurdish activist, Bassam Ahmad, in the nearby town of Hassakeh.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 fighters from ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and four Kurdish gunmen, were killed.
The Observatory said Syrian troops shelled and tried to storm the village of Samadanieh near the Golan Heights and brought in reinforcements. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said rebels were able to destroy two tanks in Samadanieh.
In Damascus, a team of international weapons experts were out in the field on their fourth day of work in the country, to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and to destroy Assad’s entire stockpile by mid-2014.
Separately, the White House warned that U.S. sanctions against Syria and Iran may suffer because of the partial government shutdown.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Treasury office that handles sanctions had to furlough nearly its entire staff. He added that the office could not sustain its core functions, which include new sanctions on Iran, Syria, terrorist groups and drug cartels.
For its part, France renewed a call for the five main U.N. Security Council powers to suspend their right to veto any resolution when a “mass crime” is committed.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that he was renewing the campaign because of the Security Council’s two-year deadlock over the Syria conflict, during which Russia has vetoed three resolutions.
Fabius did not name Russia in a commentary published by the New York Times, Le Monde and other newspapers, but said “the council was powerless in the face of the Syrian tragedy.”