Assad: US air strikes on Syrian army base were ‘definitely intentional’

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also rejected US claims that Syrian or Russian planes struck an aid convoy and that his government is stopping food reaching besieged east Aleppo 

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The Independent Online

]The President of Syria has said he believes a US-led air strike on a Syrian army position which killed 63 soldiers was carried out deliberately.

The attack last Saturday in the east of the country accidentally hit a regime base rather than intended Isis territory nearby, the US State Department said. 

In an interview with the AP conducted in the presidential palace in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad dismissed the American expression of regret for the loss of life, going on to blame US officials for the collapse of the recent ceasefire on the ground – due to the US “not having the will” to combat terrorists and militants in the war-ravaged country. 

Intense regime bombing campaigns have resumed in Aleppo since the breakdown of the seven-day ceasefire over the weekend. Activists on the groud described shells falling “like rain”. 

Rebel officials and rescue workers said incendiary bombs were among the weapons that rained from the sky on the city. Hamza al-Khatib, the director of a hospital in the rebel-held east, told Reuters there was a number of dead.

“It’s as if the planes are trying to compensate for all the days they didn’t drop bombs [during the ceasefire],” Ammar al-Selmo, the head of the civil defence rescue service in opposition-held eastern Aleppo, told Reuters.

Syria: UN aid convoy hit by airstrikes in Aleppo

In the interview with AP, Mr Assad claimed it was terrorists who were to blame for the attack and subsequent blaze that hit an aid convoy and warehouse near Aleppo in a attack on Monday. The US has insisted that the Syrian and allied Russian governments are to blame for the deaths of 21 people and destruction of aid destined for 78,000 civilians. 

The Russian Defence Ministry has released drone footage from the incident which it says shows a militant pick-up truck travelling next to the convoy carrying a heavy mortar, which they say caused the tragedy. On Thursday, the top US military officer told a Senate committee he has no doubt that Russia is responsible for the attack on the aid convoy.

US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that both Russian and Syrian aircraft were in the area at the time of the strike.  

Eyewitness accounts reported that the attack came from the air and involved barrel bombs, unguided crude bombs the use of which by Syrian forces has been condemned by many Western nations – although the country’s government continues to deny they are used. 

Mr Assad called it a convenient “coincidence” that eyewitnesses “only appear when there’s an accusation against the Syrian Army or the Russian”, pointing out it was not strategic to alienate his citizens by bombing an aid convoy and he is “morally committed” to their interests.

“I wouldn’t say that we don’t have mistakes,” he went on, referring to accusations of human rights abuses and civilian deaths perpetrated by his forces. “But there’s a difference between a mistake or even a crime that’s been committed by an individual, and between a policy of crime that’s been implemented or adopted by a government. We don’t have such a policy.”

US State Department spokesman John Kirby called Mr Assad’s claims over the strike that killed the Syrian soldiers “ridiculous”. 

“It’s difficult to see how these ridiculous claims deserve a response, except to say they prove yet again the degree to which Assad has lost his legitimacy to govern,” Mr Kirby said. 

Mr Assad said that it is only his enemies who are to blame for almost six years of war in Syria, which the UN says has left 400,000 people dead and forced four million to flee the country. 

He also claimed repeatedly that his government has not blocked food and aid from reaching rebel-held east Aleppo, denying that a siege is in place altogether. 

“If there’s really a siege around the city of Aleppo, people would have been dead by now,” he said. “How could they be starving while at the same time they can have armaments? How can we prevent the food and the medical aid from reaching that area and we cannot stop the armaments from reaching that area, which is not logical?”

While the destruction is “painful”, the president insisted that his country will one day be rebuilt, and Syrian refugees who have fled six years of war would be allowed to return very quickly if foreign powers stopped backing rebel groups. 

The UN resumed relief operations in Syria on Thursday after a 48-hour suspension due to the deadly convoy attack on Monday – and appealed to Mr Assad and rebel groups to allow aid convoys to enter eastern Aleppo.

“Forty trucks are sitting at the Turkish-Syrian border, the food will be expiring on Monday. The drivers are sleeping at the border, and they have done that now for a week,” UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said.

“So please, President Assad, do your bit to enable us get to eastern Aleppo and also the other besieged areas. We also have to get assurances in the east Aleppo case from the armed opposition groups to enter,” he added of the divided northern city.

Mr Assad expressed fears that the war will “drag on” because of continued international interference from the US, Turkey and Gulf states, adding that the West’s hands are “stained with blood”.

World leaders are due to meet in New York later on Thursday for discussions of the International Syria Support Group on how to save the recent ceasefire deal and plot a path to peace in Syria’s multi-sided conflict.