Wednesday March 20th, 2019 5:24AM

Syria's allies say airstrikes undercut political resolution

By The Associated Press
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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The leaders of Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah group in Lebanon said Sunday that Western airstrikes on their ally, Syria, have complicated prospects for a political settlement to the country's seven-year conflict.

A day after the U.S., Britain and France bombarded sites they said were linked to a chemical weapons program, Syrian President Bashar Assad appeared briefly on state TV, seemingly unfazed by the military action — and even reportedly in high spirits.

Assad told a group of visiting Russian lawmakers that the strikes were accompanied by a campaign of "lies and misinformation" against Syria and Russia in the U.N. Security Council.

Moscow and Damascus are waging the same "battles" against terrorism and "to protect international law based on respect of the sovereignty of countries and the wills of people," Assad said in comments carried by state media, an apparent jab at the three Western allies.

Russian lawmaker Dmitry Sablin, who met with Assad, said he appeared upbeat and believed the airstrikes would unify the country.

Russia and Iran have called the action a "military crime" and "act of aggression." The U.N. Security Council rejected a Russian resolution calling for condemnation of the "aggression" by the U.S., France and Britain.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and they agreed the Western airstrikes were an "illegal action ... adversely impacting prospects for political settlement in Syria," a Kremlin statement said.

Putin said the actions violated the U.N. Charter and if they continue, "it will inevitably entail chaos in international relations," the statement said.

The official IRNA news agency quoted Rouhani as saying The U.S. and "some Western countries do not want Syria to reach permanent stability."

Iran and Russia should not allow the "fire of a new tension" to flare up in the region, Rouhani said, adding that the airstrikes were an "invasion" aimed at "emboldening defeated terrorists," IRNA reported.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah group that has hundreds of fighters backing Assad's forces, said the airstrikes failed to "terrorize or break the spirits" of Syria and its allies.

Instead, he said, the attack bolstered the confidence of the Syrian army and its allies, as well as probably sinking the already-faltering U.N.-backed peace process on Syria in Geneva.

"If the goal was to pressure Syria to expedite a political solution, I think what happened will complicate the political solution and will strain international relations and the Geneva track, if not torpedo Geneva altogether," Nasrallah told an election rally in Lebanon.

Nasrallah said there is no chemical program in Syria, and he likened the attacks in Syria to the West's concern over Iran's nuclear program.

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, said the allied airstrikes "took out the heart" of Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. When pressed, however, he acknowledged that some unspecified portion of Assad's chemical arms infrastructure was not targeted.

Assad denies he has used chemical weapons, and the U.S. has yet to present evidence of what it says led to the allied action: a chlorine gas attack on civilians in Douma on April 7 that killed more than 40 people. The U.S. says it suspects that sarin gas also was used.

A team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is in Syria to investigate the Douma incident and was expected to visit the town. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad met with members of the watchdog group in their Damascus hotel Sunday.

The government regained full control of Douma on Saturday following a surrender deal with the rebels in the town east of Damascus. It later deployed another 5,000 security forces there.

Russian military police had been deployed in Douma, raising complaints from the Syrian opposition that evidence of chemical weapons use might no longer be found.

Douma was the last rebel holdout in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.

France, meanwhile, has reached out to Russia, urging it to join renewed peace efforts.

In an interview published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Moscow "should join our efforts to promote a political process in Syria that would allow a way out of the crisis."

In a televised interview Sunday night, French President Emmanuel Macron said the U.S., France and Britain had "full international legitimacy to intervene" because they had gotten evidence the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people and the airstrikes were enforcing international humanitarian law.

"It was retaliation, not an act of war," Macron said on French TV channel BMF and online investigative site Mediapart. He said the allies acted without a U.N. mandate because of the "constant stalemate of the Russians" in the Security Council.

France has continued to talk regularly with Moscow even as East-West tensions have grown. Macron spoke with Putin on Friday, before the airstrikes.

France and the U.S. say the Geneva process is the only track to pursue a political resolution. Russia has pursued a separate track for political negotiations, hosting talks in Sochi.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC he hopes there is no need for more strikes in Syria, but that Britain and its allies will consider further action if Assad uses chemical weapons again. He said the airstrikes were proportionate and showed "the world has said enough is enough."

In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told public broadcaster ARD that he hopes the air strikes will result in a fresh effort to find a peaceful solution to the seven-year conflict. He said European Union foreign ministers will meet Monday to discuss the situation and put forward proposals for steps going forward.


Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.

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