NEW YORK/DAMASCUS – Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Monday pledged to cooperate with international inspectors charged with dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons program, but he vowed to crush a rebellion that he said has drawn strength from al-Qaida and other internationalist jihadists.
Addressing a gathering of world leaders and foreign dignitaries at the U.N. General Assembly, the top Syrian diplomat sought to link President Bashar Assad’s attempt to prevail in a bloody civil war with the wider international war on terrorism.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he said, New Yorkers “were burned with the fire of extremism and bloodshed, the same way we are suffering now in Syria.”
Al-Moallem portrayed the rebels, including foreign fighters drawn to the struggle, as barbaric extremists who “dismember human bodies into pieces while still alive and send their limbs to their families, just because those citizens are defending a unified Syria.”
Some of the most powerful insurgent groups fighting in the civil war espouse a radical Islamist ideology, but the United States and its allies have been attempting to bolster the strength of more moderate forces.
“The war on terror is not only Syria’s war,” al-Moallem warned. “One day, those terrorists will return to their respective countries, and then no country in the world will be immune from this terrorism, which recognizes no borders, nor geography.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Erin Pelton, denounced al-Moallem’s reference to the Sept. 11 attacks “as disingenuous as it is offensive.”
“The Assad regime’s brutal response to what began as peaceful demonstrations precipitated Syria’s crisis and has led to the deaths of over 100,000,” she said. “The fact that the Syrian regime has shelled hospitals and used chemical weapons on its own people demonstrates that it has adopted the very terrorist tactics that it today decries.”
The foreign minister’s speech came three days after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution requiring Syria to allow international inspectors immediate and unfettered access to its chemical weapons facilities and scientists.
“I assure you of Syria’s commitment to the full implementation” of its obligations to disarm under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” al-Moallem said. “However, there remains the challenge that is facing all of us: whether those who are supplying terrorists with these types of weapons will abide by their legal commitments, since terrorists, who used poisonous gas in my country, have received chemical agents from regional and Western countries that are well known to us.”
Late Sunday, al-Moallem said the main Western-backed opposition group should not take part in a future peace conference because it had overwhelmingly supported a U.S. strike against Damascus over August’s chemical attack.
U.S. and Russian efforts are focusing on holding a peace conference for Syria, perhaps as soon as November, in Geneva. But al-Moallem’s comments put a damper on those efforts. He said senior Damascus government officials will not sit down to talk with the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group in exile that supported the possibility of a U.S. strike.