Syria’s Zoubi assails Egyptian and Turkish leaders


BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria’s top government spokesman declared Monday that the refugees fleeing its borders were welcome back “at any time,” mocked the presidents of Egypt and Turkey for their condemnations and called the armed opposition unfit for negotiations.

The spokesman — Omran al-Zoubi, the minister of information — held an unusual televised news conference that appeared intended to rebut international criticism of Syria, including from the two presidents, over the swelling refugee crisis on its borders and the mounting death toll at home.

He spoke after the end of the deadliest week and the deadliest month in the 18-month uprising, in which the government of President Bashar al-Assad has used its air force to carry out assaults on opposition supporters in several areas at once. Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, put the death toll for last week at 1,600. A Syrian opposition group said as many as 5,000 were killed in August, more than a fifth of the more than 23,000 who died over the previous year and half.

Evidently concerned that the foreign criticism of the Assad government was penetrating Syria enough to influence those still on the sidelines of the fight, Mr. Zoubi directed his most caustic remarks at Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist celebrated around the region as Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

In his first high-profile foreign trip, Mr. Morsi used a visit last week to Syria’s regional sponsor, Iran, to strongly fault the Assad government for its bloody crackdown on what Mr. Morsi called a legitimate movement toward democracy. His speech captivated the Arab world.

At the price of publicizing Mr. Morsi’s criticism over Syrian state television, Mr. Zoubi accused the new Egyptian president of being a stooge of the United States and Israel, no different than the strongman he replaced, Hosni Mubarak. “The beard is the only difference,” Mr. Zoubi said.

Inside Syria, there were reports that the violence was spreading into neighborhoods of the capital, Damascus, that had been considered relatively neutral.

The third bomb in less than a week exploded in the suburban neighborhood of Jaramana, which is populated mainly by members of the Christian and Druse minorities. The blast killed at least five people and wounded dozens of others. Witnesses said three fire engines and several ambulances responded to the scene.

At least two Druse men, a Christian woman and her small child, were among those killed, mourners at the local hospital said.

Last Tuesday, a car bomb in the same suburb killed two Druse men who were said by some residents to belong to the pro-Assad paramilitary groups known as the shabiha, though their affiliation could not be confirmed. The next night, a bomb went off at the two men’s funeral, killing more than a dozen people and wounding about 50 more.

After the explosion on Monday, activists and residents traded theories about the possibility that members of the armed opposition, a loose alliance known as the Free Syrian Army, were attacking the Druse and Christians for supposed allegiance to the Assad government.

Others said that Mr. Assad’s forces were planting the bombs to discredit the opposition and draw the Druse and Christians into the fight on the president’s side.

Both groups are thought to have been staying out of the conflict, which has mainly pitted the Sunni Muslim majority against the members of Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect, who dominate the military. A 50-year-old resident of Jaramana who gave his name as Abu Fadi, weighing both theories, said, “The government wants us to fight the Sunnis, and the Sunnis want us to fight against the regime.”

Mahed, a 40-year-old Druse who works for the government and lives on the street where the bomb went off, said of his mostly Christian and Druse neighbors: “We don’t participate in any anti-Assad activities. We want to live in peace. But I feel we engaged in the country’s war.”

If the situation deteriorates, Mahed said, he will flee to his hometown in a Druse area of southern Syria because “Jaramana will be a battlefield between many sects, on top of the war between the governmental forces and armed groups.”

In the city of Homs, under siege by Assad forces for more than 70 days, fighters seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster claimed that they had captured a national hospital. Rebels provided video showing a lengthy tunnel they had dug to plant explosives underneath a hospital, an explosion that sent an enormous cloud of smoke up over the city and crouching fighters moving toward the building as many shots rang out. Another activist described the same events independently.

Witnesses reported that Mr. Assad’s air force attacked rebel positions in Al Bab, a suburb of Aleppo, another urban battleground. Activists said 25 people were killed in the collapse of a building that was struck. Video images circulated by activists and other pictures broadcast on satellite television appeared to show dead bodies, including that of a small child, being pulled from the rubble of a bombed building, but it was believed to be the site of a different attack on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain, estimated that more than 100 people were killed in that attack and in other clashes around the country on Monday, making it an only moderately deadly day in the Syrian civil war.

In his news conference, Mr. Zoubi, the information minister, said the Assad government would negotiate only with what he called the “national opposition.” But he ruled out any talks with the main opposition groups, armed and unarmed, whom he repeatedly portrayed as foreign agents.

Mr. Zoubi appeared determined to rebut reports that the Assad government’s crackdown, and especially its air assaults, were forcing hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee to desolate tent cities set up for refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The growing humanitarian crisis has alarmed the region.

Mr. Zoubi said the refugees “don’t need permission” to return. “They can go back to their homes and their families,” he said. “There is nothing at all that prevents them.”

He added: “The Syrian government did not and will never kick anyone out. The government will never accept that anyone has to live in a tent outside the country.”

But he also voiced a qualifier that might discourage the return of supporters of the armed opposition: “Unless some of them are involved in crimes.

“I am talking about families and children,” he said in reference to the more welcome refugees.

Citing the refugee crisis, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has called for international intervention to establish a no-fly zone and safe areas within Syria for civilians fleeing the conflict.

Mr. Zoubi said the Turkish president has “lost his legitimacy” and warned that Syrian armed forces would retaliate against such intervention, even if the proposed safe zone was just “a finger’s space.”

“If anyone touches our national sovereignty, we will cut off his hands,” he said.

He also pointedly warned foreign journalists against entering Syria without authorization. Some reporters who have done so to cover the conflict have died in Syria, including Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times of London. Another American journalist, Austin Tice, 31, has been missing in Syria since mid-August.

“A reporter who enters illegally is committing two mistakes, putting himself in question legally and going beyond the limits of his profession,” he said. He promised that any who were caught would be criminally prosecuted.

NY Times