Syrian foreign minister warns against airstrikes

Syria's foreign minister said his country is willing to cooperate with the international coalition provided any military action inside Syrian territory must be coordinated with the government and respect the country’s sovereignty.

Syria's foreign minister Walid Al Moualem speaks during a news conference in Damascus on August 25. Reuters
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BEIRUT // Syria’s foreign minister warned the US yesterday not to conduct air strikes inside Syria against the Islamic State group without Damascus’ consent.

Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem said any such attack would be considered an act of aggression.

He made the comments as militants from the Islamic State group advanced in Syria and Iraq, where Washington is already carrying out air strikes.

“Syria is ready for cooperation and coordination at the regional and international level to fight terrorism and implement UN Security Council resolution 2170,” Mr Muallem said.

The resolution, passed earlier this month, seeks to cut funds and the flow of foreign fighters both to the Islamic State and to Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al Nusra Front.

Barack Obama has resisted ordering US military action in Syria for three years, even after a deadly chemical weapons attack a year ago near Damascus he blamed on President Bashar Al Assad’s government. But the US president now faces pressure from his own military leaders to go after the Islamic State group inside Syria.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Martin Dempsey, said he would recommend the US military move against the Islamic State in Syria only after he has determined that the group poses a direct threat to the US.

He still believes the group is more a regional threat and is not plotting attacks against either the US or Europe. But he added that key allies in the region — including Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — will join the US in quashing the Islamic State group.

The Islamic State “has been so brutal, and has wrapped itself in a radical religious legitimacy that clearly threatens everybody I just mentioned, that I think they will be willing partners,” he said late on Sunday.

Whether the US would be willing to coordinate with a Syrian regime which it has fiercely opposed during a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people is less clear.

Mr Muallem said the United States and Britain “were welcome” to work with Damascus to take on the Islamic State.

But he said any military action inside Syrian territory must be carried out in coordination with the government and respect the country’s sovereignty.

“We must feel that the cooperation is serious and not double standards”.

Asked if Syria’s air defences could shoot down US planes, he said “that could happen if there was not prior coordination”.

“We are proposing international cooperation and coordination to prevent” such a scenario, he said.

Mr Muallem’s comments come amid rising concern in the international community about the growing power of the Islamic State, which has declared a “caliphate” in the large stretches of territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.

The US began carrying out air strikes in Iraq on August 8, in bid to halt the group’s advances close to the Kurdish regional capital Erbil.

In Syria, the Islamic State has continued to advance, taking territory from both opposition groups in Aleppo province, and from the Syrian army in Raqqa province.

On Sunday, the group’s fighters seized the Tabqa airbase, the last post controlled by the Syrian army in Raqqa. The capture of the base puts the group in control of an entire province for the first time.

The Islamic State has developed a reputation for extreme brutality including decapitations, crucifixions and stoning people to death.

Last week, the group distributed a video showing one of its fighters beheading US journalist James Foley, who had been held hostage in Syria.

The group’s advance prompted the UN Security Council to pass a rare unanimous resolution on August 15 intended to stem funding and the flow of foreign fighters to Islamic State and Al Nusra Front.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press