UNITED NATIONS — Declaring that victory over “terrorism” is almost at hand after more than seven years of civil war, Syria’s foreign minister took to the world stage Saturday and demanded that “occupation” forces from the U.S., France and Turkey leave the country immediately.
Walid al-Moallem told the General Assembly’s high-level meeting that the situation on the ground “is more stable and secure thanks to combating terrorism” and “all conditions are now present for the voluntary return of refugees.”
Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have retaken most of the territory rebels seized during the war that has killed over 400,000 people and driven millions from their homes. President Bashar Assad’s government refers to all armed opposition and rebel groups fighting Syrian forces as “terrorists,” not just Islamic State or al-Qaida militants.
The White House signaled a fundamental shift in the military mission for troops in Syria that would focus on Iran rather than ISIS.
Last week, Russia and Turkey agreed to a deal which stopped an imminent Syrian government offensive to retake the last major rebel stronghold in the northern province of Idlib. It calls for setting up a demilitarized zone around Idlib to separate government forces from rebels, including those from the al-Qaida-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front.
"We hope that when the agreement is implemented, the Nusra Front and other terrorists will be eradicated, thus eliminating the last remnants of terrorism in Syria," al-Moallem said.
He offered no hard evidence to back up his assertions that victory was near. There was no response to emails seeking comment from the U.S., France and Turkey.
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Al-Moallem's upbeat speech praised the army and the Syrian people for remaining "defiant" during the war, "fully convinced that this was a battle for their existence." He bashed Western and other countries supporting the opposition, alluding to their failed effort to install a transition government and get rid of Assad.
"To the disappointment of some, here we are today more than seven years into this dirty war against my country, announcing to the world that the situation on the ground has become more secure and stable, and that our battle against terrorism is almost over," al-Moallem said.
"It is high time for all those detached from reality to wake up, let go of their fantasies, and come to their senses, see matters realistically," he said. "They must realize they will not achieve politically what they failed to achieve by force."
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While Turkey confronts the difficult task of trying to separate the forces in Idlib, the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is trying to bring the warring parties together to move forward on long-stalled political talks aimed at ending the war.
De Mistura is hoping to convene the first meeting of a committee to reform the country's constitution, a key step in a 2012 roadmap adopted by world powers that is to culminate with elections and the formation of a new government. He told The Associated Press this week that October will be crucial.
Al-Moallem signaled difficulties ahead in negotiations, indicating in his speech that Syria doesn't want a new constitution. "We stress that the mandate of the committee is limited to reviewing the articles of the current constitution," the Syrian minister said.
He added that Syria "will not accept any proposal that constitutes an interference in internal affairs of Syria, or leads to such interference."
The United States, aided by Syrian Kurdish-led fighters, helped rout the Islamic State extremist group from all urban areas in Syria but remains in the country because pockets of ISIS militants remain. Turkey says it is fighting ISIS but is also seeking to curb the spread of the Syrian Kurdish militia that it considers “terrorists.”
Al-Moallem said "any foreign presence on Syrian territory without the consent of the Syrian government is illegal, and constitutes a flagrant violation of international law and the U.N. Charter."
"We therefore consider any forces operating on Syrian territory without an explicit request from the Syrian government, including U.S., French and Turkish forces, occupying forces and will be dealt with accordingly," he said. "They must withdraw immediately and without any conditions."
The Trump administration is now pledging the U.S. will remain in Syria until the "enduring defeat" of the Islamic State group, a move that could signal open-ended American involvement in the war-torn country.
Assad's forces have battled all armed opposition, both Syrian rebels and militant groups such as IS and al-Qaida.
Al-Moallem said the Damascus government also remains committed regaining control over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed, a move never recognized internationally.
Associated Press writer Katarina Kratovac contributed to this report from Cairo.