BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said US plans to train vetted rebels to fight the Islamic State (IS) group were “illusory” as they would eventually defect to the jihadists, in an interview published ob Monday.
The Syrian leader also questioned talks to be held in Moscow this week, telling Foreign Affairs magazine that his government would attend but was not convinced the opposition figures taking part represented Syrians on the ground.
Washington has backed the Syrian opposition since early in the uprising and has unveiled plans to train more than 5,000 vetted rebels in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to fight IS.
Assad said the planned US-trained force would be “illegal” and would be treated like any other rebel group.
“They are going to be fought like any other illegal militia fighting against the Syrian army,” he said.
“Bringing 5,000 [fighters]from the outside will make most of them defect and join ISIS [Islamic State] and other groups,” he said.
“The idea itself is illusory,” Assad added.
The Pentagon has itself acknowledged that identifying and vetting potential rebel recruits for training is a difficult task that cannot be accomplished quickly without significant risks.
Assad questioned the seriousness of the US-led campaign against the jihadists.
“What we’ve seen so far is just, let’s say, window-dressing, nothing real,” he said.
“Did the United States put any pressure on Turkey to stop the support of Al-Qaeda? They didn’t,” Assad said.
He was referring to his government’s longstanding accusations that Ankara has backed rebel groups including IS’s jihadist rivals in Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
Assad said the nearly four-year-old conflict could only be ended with a political solution, but cast doubt on the value of talks being organized this week by his key ally Russia.
The meetings, which opened on Monday, were intended to bring together government and opposition representatives, but the main exiled opposition bloc, the National Coalition, is boycotting.
Assad said his government would attend, but asked: “Who do you negotiate with?
“We have institutions, we have an army and we have influence,” he said.
“The people we are going to negotiate with, who do they represent?”, he added.
His government has long argued that the exiled opposition does not represent people inside Syria, accusing it of being “puppets” of its main foreign backers, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.
Assad also criticized Israel for a January 18 strike on Syrian territory that killed fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and a general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Israeli sources said the strike was intended to prevent an attack on the Jewish state, but Assad dismissed that as an “excuse.”
“Never has an operation against Israel happened through the Golan Heights since the ceasefire in 1974,” he said.
“So for Israel to allege that there was a plan for an operation, that’s a far cry from reality, just an excuse, because they wanted to assassinate somebody from Hezbollah.”
Iran has sent military advisers to Syria, while Hezbollah has dispatched thousands of fighters to battle the rebels, whom Damascus claims are backed by Israel.
Assad said the January 18 strike proved Israel’s support.
“Some in Syria joke: ‘How can you say that Al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force’.”