Middle East

Syria's friends, foes slam Israel airstrikes

In this image taken from video obtained from the Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke and fire fill the the skyline over Damascus, Syria, early Sunday, May 5, 2013 after an Israeli airstrike. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video)

BEIRUT: Supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad found themselves in rare unity Tuesday in their condemnation of Israeli airstrikes that struck Damascus military bases over the weekend.

In a meeting in Amman in the wake of Sunday’s strike, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi called for dialogue between the Syrian regime and peaceful opposition groups to end the crisis, but rejected any place for the Islamist militant opposition group, the Nusra Front.

Iran has remained a steadfast ally of the Syrian regime, while Jordan, allied to the U.S. and with a peace treaty with Israel, has lent support to the Syrian opposition, hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and reportedly allowing U.S. training of opposition forces on its border.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch adversary of the Assad regime, slammed the Israeli attacks on an elite Republican Guard base in the Qasioun Mountain outside the capital and on Hamah military compound, allegedly linked to Syria’s chemical and biological weapons programs.

"The airstrike Israel carried out on Damascus is completely unacceptable. There is no rationale, no pretext that can excuse this operation," Erdogan told a parliamentary meeting of his ruling AKP party.

The Turkish premier added that the raids acted as a way for the regime to mask attacks on its own people.

"These attacks are chances, opportunities offered on a golden tray to Assad and to the illegitimate Syrian regime. Using the Israel attack as an excuse, he is trying to cover up the genocide in Banias," he said.

Erdogan was referring to a Syrian coastal town where anti-Assad activists said at least 62 people were killed by government fighters over the weekend.

His denunciation of the strikes was echoed by Saudi Arabia, another ally of rebels working to oust Assad.

The Saudi cabinet Monday described Israel’s raid as "flagrant attacks and a dangerous violation of the sovereignty of an Arab state," according to the state news agency.

Footage of the attacks highlighted their scale; amateur videos showed huge balls of fire engulfing the local area, while residents told Reuters that windows several hundred meters away were blown in by the force of one of the blasts.

The opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 42 soldiers were confirmed dead, but that 100 others remained unaccounted for.

Assad’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Syria has a right to respond to Israeli attacks under international law, during a phone call Monday.

Describing the strikes as illegal, Moallem said that the attacks proved a common agenda between Israel and the disparate rebel forces working to oust Assad, in reports carried by Syrian State news agency SANA.

Iran, a key strategic ally of Damascus, said Syria’s neighbors should respond to Israel’s aggression, rather than Tehran.

Arab nations “must stand by their brethren in Damascus” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters in Amman Tuesday.

Iran has thrown its weight behind the Damascus regime and reports have circulated that Tehran, along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have sent elite forces to support embattled government soldiers.

Tel Aviv said that the weekend’s attacks were targeting caches of Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, ratcheting up fears of a wider regional conflagration, with an Israel-Iran proxy conflict being played out in Syria.

Amid warnings that the repercussions of the strike will impact the region, Iran and Jordan jointly called Tuesday for dialogue between the Syrian regime and "peaceful" opposition groups.

Visiting Amman Salehi said that such talks must not involve the jihadist Nusra Front which has carried out some of the most effective attacks against the Syrian regime.

"We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government," Salehi told a joint news conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in Amman.

"We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra."

Salehi, who is expected to travel on to Damascus later Tuesday, according to an Iranian diplomat source in Syria's capital, said the Syrian conflict is seen impacting the entire region.

"The repercussions of the Syrian crisis will reflect on neighboring states and other countries," Salehi said.

"If a vacuum is created, God forbids, the outcome will be unknown. We believe the Syrian crisis must be resolved peacefully."

Cementing concerns of a wider regional congflagration, a Palestinian group aligned with Damascus said Tuesday the regime had given it a “green light” to respond to Israel’s attacks.

"Syria has given the green light to set up missile batteries to directly attack Israeli targets," Anwar Raja of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command told The Associated Press.

He said authorities also told the PFLP-GC that the group could carry out attacks independently without consulting Syrian authorities.

Hours before the PFLP-GC statement, a mortar shell from Syria exploded in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the third such attack in 24 hours.

Although no damage was caused, stray shells landing in Israeli territory have been gradually increasing as rebel and government battles edge toward the strategic plains.

Israel has upped its military drills near the Golan in the past few weeks as tensions at border escalate. – with agencies

 

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