June 12, 2015 / 10:20 AM / in 3 years

Damascus says it has faced worse times, key areas secure

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The Syrian government says it has come through worse phases in the four-year-old conflict than the latest advances by insurgents across the country and is confident its army can hit back with the help of its allies.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad speaks during an interview with Reuters in Damascus June 11, 2015. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Western officials believe losses in recent months by President Bashar al-Assad’s government could signal a shift in momentum after a long period of stalemate in the four-year-old conflict.

Assad’s government has lost ground in recent months both to Islamic State fighters that are being targeted by U.S.-led air strikes and to other insurgents, some of which are supported by Arab allies of the West.

In an interview with Reuters in Damascus, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad acknowledged insurgent gains, blaming support from Damascus’s enemies Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“Some advances have been made whether we like it or not,” Mekdad said during the hour-long interview in his ministry office in central Damascus late on Thursday.

But he said Western areas of the country widely seen as key to Assad’s survival - including the capital - were secure. Damascus was not vulnerable, as it frequently had been during the first two years of the crisis, he said.

“I think Syria was under more pressure (before),” Mekdad said. “Even Damascus was under a direct threat. Nowadays Damascus is absolutely not under such a threat. Homs is safe, Hama is safe, now al-Qalamoun is safe,” he said, describing two major cities and a mountainous area along Syria’s western border with Lebanon.

He said an election on Sunday in Turkey, which ended the parliamentary majority of the ruling party of President Tayyip Erdogan, one of Assad’s bitterest foes, was an opportunity for better relations between Damascus and Ankara.

And he repeated previous statements from Damascus that it was having secret communications with European officials to help target their common jihadist enemies.

DAMASCUS SAFER

Damascus does indeed feel safer than it did two years ago, with a reduced security presence in the streets. But the relative security in the capital has been accompanied by government losses in other parts of Syria in recent months.

The war has killed around a quarter of a million people and created what the United Nations describes as one of the worst refugee crises since World War Two.

Last year saw the United States enter the conflict with air strikes against Islamic State, one of Assad’s most powerful foes. But Washington and its Western and Arab allies still want Assad removed from power. Other insurgent groups backed by Arab states have made recent gains.

Mekdad blamed the insurgent advances on a new alliance between Syria’s regional foes Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, saying it was supported by the West. But he said the military was regrouping.

“What makes us optimistic are two things. The first is the increase in the strength and morale of the Syrian Arab Army,” he said, adding that this was because troops had secured “fundamental requirements” for their duties, an apparent reference to military equipment.

“The second is the strong support we have received and will receive from our allies, whether it be the Islamic Republic of Iran, or the Russian Federation or from our main ally Hezbollah,” he said. The Iran-backed Lebanese group has sent fighters over the border into Syria and is fighting in Qalamoun.

“We hope the performance of the Syrian army will be different in a few days, if not a few weeks.”

Mekdad also said he hoped relations between Damascus and Ankara would improve after the Turkish parliamentary elections which dealt a blow to Erdogan.

“We are mainly looking forward...to restoring ties and momentum to Syrian-Turkish relations to a partnership between the two countries that is based on mutual respect and respect for the sovereignty and independence and of both Syria and Turkey,” he said.

He repeated Syrian government accusations that Turkey had provided military backing to “terrorist groups” opposing Assad. Turkey denies backing hardline groups in Syria.

Mekdad said demands for Turkey to seal its border had become a “global demand”, referring to comments made by U.S. President Barack Obama at a summit of major powers this week that more effort was needed to keep fighters out of Syria.

Mekdad said Syria wanted to deepen cooperation with Iraq on fighting Islamic State, but Western pressure on Iraq had prevented improved cooperation.

He said however there was “a lot of communication” between Damascus and Western officials, including confidential discussions about security issues.

“They want to discuss security cooperation and security arrangements with us because we now have a treasure trove of information about (members of) these gangs and terrorist groups that have come from most European countries,” he said.

Western countries have denied coordinating the air campaign against Islamic State with Damascus.

Additional reporting by Reuters Television, Editing by Peter Graff

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