- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2017

Syrian President Bashar Assad is rejecting U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria for refugees fleeing violence in the war-torn nation.

“It’s not a realistic idea at all,” Mr. Assad said in a recent interview, during which he also dismissed allegations of torture and other human rights abuses by his government as “lies” tied to a campaign by Amnesty International, Persian Gulf nations and even the FBI to “demonize the Syrian government.”

A video of the exclusive interview with Mr. Assad by journalist Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News was published online Friday.

The Syrian president said there could be a role for U.S. troops in the fight against the Islamic State terror group in Syria — but only if the role is approved by his government as part of a “rapprochement” with Russia.

While U.S. officials say there are presently about 500 American special forces and other elite personnel already operating inside Syria, Mr. Assad said that “if you want to start genuinely as [the] United States to [defeat the Islamic State] it must be through the Syrian government.”

He made the assertion in response to a line of questioning about Mr. Trump’s recent mandate that U.S. officials develop a new plan over the coming weeks to destroy the terror group also known as ISIS and ISIL — a plan that could involve the deployment of more U.S. special forces troops and Apache attack helicopters inside Syria.

Yahoo News maintained that Mr. Assad’s comments during the 34-minute interview reflected his increasingly emboldened stance since Russian airstrikes helped drive rebels from eastern Aleppo, turning the tide in the country’s 6-year-old civil war.

The Syrian president acknowledged regularly consulting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and demanded that the U.S. lift economic sanctions against Syria as a first step to working with his military and Moscow to defeat terrorists, according to an article Yahoo published with the interview — the first with Mr. Assad since Mr. Trump took office in Washington last month.

While the new U.S. president has said he’s open to working with Russia toward battling ISIS in Syria, it remains to be seen whether and how such cooperation may play out.

With regard to carving out violence-free territory in Syria for returning refugees, Mr. Trump told ABC News in an interview last month that he intends to “absolutely do safe zones in” the war-torn nation.

In making the claim, Mr. Trump said Europe had made a tremendous mistake by admitting millions of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern trouble spots, and he did not want that to happen in the United States, according to Reuters.

Mr. Trump made the comments days before signing his controversial executive order to ban Syrian refugees indefinitely and all other refugees temporarily from accessing the United States. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a stay Thursday stopping Mr. Trump’s order.

During his own interview with Yahoo News, meanwhile, Mr. Assad argued that there are “definitely” terrorists hiding among refugees who have fled Syria for the West. But he declined to say whether he believes Mr. Trump’s executive order attempting to bar refugee access to the United States was justified.

At the same time, the Syrian president said that “safe zones for the Syrians could only happen when you have stability and security, where you don’t have terrorists, where you don’t have [the] flow and support of those terrorists by the neighboring countries or by Western countries. This is where you can have a natural safe zone, which is our country. They don’t need safe zones at all. It’s not a realistic idea at all.”

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