ROME – In a new interview, Syrian President Bashar al Assad responded publicly to a letter he received from Pope Francis over the summer voicing concern about civilian casualties in the country’s ongoing civil war.
Speaking to Italian journalist Monica Maggioni of the RAI 24 news site, Assad said that when he read the pope’s letter, “I had the impression that maybe the picture in the Vatican is not complete.”
“That’s to be expected, since the mainstream narrative in the West is about this ‘bad government’ killing the ‘good people,’” he said, adding that most media depicts the Syrian Army as exclusively targeting civilians and hospitals, “which is not correct.”
Assad said he penned a response to Francis “explaining to the pope the reality in Syria.”
“We are…the first to be concerned about civilian lives, because you cannot liberate an area while the people are against you. You cannot talk about liberation while the civilians are against you or the society,” he said, adding that the most crucial part of any military operation “is to have the support of the public in that area or in the region in general. That has been clear for the last nine years and that’s against our interests.”
In his letter to Assad, dated July 22, Francis pushed for the restoration of stability in Syria, asking the president to “do everything possible” to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the country’s Idlib province, and to create the conditions for “a safe return of exiles and internally displaced persons.”
He also urged Assad to provide “conditions of humanity” to political prisoners and made several other requests, including the sharing of information about the location and condition of displaced persons with their families and a renewed dialogue and negotiation with the help of the international community.
In the interview with RAI, Assad also blamed Europe for the Syrian conflict, accusing them of funding extremists and calling them hypocrites for their concern over terrorism and the influx of Syrian refugees and those asking for asylum in European nations.
“We have to start with a simple question: Who created this problem? Why do you have refugees in Europe? It’s a simple question: Because of terrorism that’s being supported by Europe – and of course the United States and Turkey and others – but Europe was the main player in creating chaos in Syria,” he said. “So, what goes around comes around.”
Assad also touched on Russia’s role in the conflict, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talks with Turkey about negotiating a resolution to conflict in northeast Syria, where Turkey has been trying to set up a “safe-zone” free of Kurdish fighters, is not a change in its position, but is a bid “to convince the Turks that you have to leave Syria.”
Russia has been a key ally for Syria in the war, while Turkey has had a contentious relationship with Assad since conflict erupted in 2011, at one point calling for his resignation.
“Because of the American negative role and the Western negative role regarding Turkey and the Kurds, the Russians stepped in, in order to balance that role, to make the situation…I wouldn’t say better, but less bad if you want to be more precise,” Assad said, adding that for the future, Russia’s position is clear: “Syrian integrity and Syrian sovereignty. Syrian integrity and sovereignty are in contradiction with the Turkish invasion, that is very obvious and clear.”
Syria’s war is believed to have killed around 500,000 people and displaced millions in the nine years it has been raging, with violence originally sparked by a round of anti-Assad protests.
Francis, who was elected just two years after the conflict began, has made the situation in Syria a top political and diplomatic priority from the beginning, organizing a massive prayer and penance liturgy for Syria in St. Peter’s Square shortly after becoming pope.
In April 2016 the pontiff brought 12 Syrian refugees back with him to Rome after a daytrip to the Greek Island of Lesbos, which has been a main arrival point for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
In December of that year, he wrote a letter to Assad urging the president to denounce all forms of extremism and asking that the international humanitarian law be respected regarding the protection of civilians and access to humanitarian aid.
In his interview with RAI, Assad said the Vatican in its concern for civilians must go to the root cause of the problem, which he said is “the Western role in supporting the terrorists, and it is the sanctions on the Syrian people that have made the situation much worse.”
“This is another reason for the refugees that you have in Europe now,” he said. “You don’t want refugees but at the same time you create the situation or the atmosphere that will tell them ‘go outside Syria, somewhere else,’ and of course they will go to Europe.”
Assad voiced his hope that the Vatican can play a crucial role within Europe and throughout the international community in convincing states to “stop meddling in the Syrian issue, stop breaching international law.”
“That’s enough, we only need people to follow international law. The civilians will be safe, the order will be back, everything will be fine. Nothing else,” he said.
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