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Assad accuses Israel of working with rebels

Monday, 4 February 2013 - 4:26pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Assad was humiliated by the reported attack from several Israeli jets, said to have targeted weapons bound for Syria's militant ally Hizbollah. It exposed the weaknesses in his much-vaunted air defence systems.

Bashar al-Assad accused Israel yesterday (Sunday) of trying to "destabilise" his country, as he claimed last week's air strike showed the Jewish state was behind the revolution that is seeking to overthrow his regime.

Assad was humiliated by the reported attack from several Israeli jets, said to have targeted weapons bound for Syria's militant ally Hizbollah. It exposed the weaknesses in his much-vaunted air defence systems.

Yesterday however, the Syrian president attempted to turn the situation to his advantage by playing on hostility toward Israel across the region. In his first remarks on the bombing, Assad said it had exposed the Jewish state's cooperation with "foreign" enemy forces inside his territory.

"[This action] unmasked the true role Israel is playing, in collaboration with foreign enemy forces and their agents on Syrian soil, to destabilise and weaken Syria," he said, in comments recorded by the state news agency.

Assad insisted that his country could still meet "current threats and aggression".

Last Wednesday's air strike targeted surface-to-air missiles and a military complex close to the capital Damascus.

Israel yesterday came close to admitting responsibility for the attack for the first time, when Ehud Barak, the defence minister, said it was "another proof that when we say something we mean it".

"We say that we don't think that it should be allowable to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon, Hizbollah from Syria, when Assad falls," Barak said.

Assad was mocked by Turkey, a principal backer of the rebels.

"Why didn't Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace and playing with the dignity of his country?" said Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister.

Assad claims he is facing a western-backed plot because of his support for "the resistance to Israel", in particular Hizbollah. Israel is afraid that it faces a double threat, from Hizbollah in Lebanon gaining control of Syrian weapons, including chemical weapons, and from jihadist rebels using a "liberated" Syria as a base from which to attack it. Security officials confirmed that Israel was preparing contingency plans for a buffer zone inside Syrian territory bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The strength of Syria's air defences has been a principal reason cited for the West's refusal to intervene directly in the conflict, with military experts saying that a no-fly zone would be impossible without severe losses to those enforcing it.

But last week's air strike hit a convoy of trucks carrying surface-to-air missiles without any planes suffering losses. The Syrian regime showed pictures on television yesterday of the Jamraya military research facility, which it said was one of the targets, in ruins.

Amr al-Azm, a Syrian exile with close contacts to the opposition leadership and the US State Department, said that residents claimed the base had been struck repeatedly over four or five hours.

"It is one of the most heavily fortified and surrounded places in Syria," he said. "How did that happen if he had the air defences we keep being frightened with?"

According to a report in The New York Times, Hillary Clinton, the departing US secretary of state, and the former head of the CIA, General David Petraeus, put forward a plan last summer for military support for the rebels, but it was vetoed by the White House.

Al-Azm said the strategy of the United States and its allies was to squeeze Assad enough to force him to negotiate without allowing the regime to collapse totally. They feared that could lead to an uncontrollable and unpredictable spillover, he said.

In a volte face that would accord with this plan, the head of the western-backed Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, last week announced that he was prepared to negotiate with the regime even before Assad stood down.

On Saturday evening he held talks with Russia and Iran, the regime's main backers. "It's a good step forward," Ali Akbar Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister said yesterday. "We are ready to be part of the solution."

Some opposition members are furious that Khatib appears to be strengthening Assad's hand while he is still bombarding rebel areas indiscriminately. An air strike on the southern suburbs of Aleppo, where the rebels made significant gains on Friday and Saturday, killed 16 people yesterday, including 10 youths and children, activists said.

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