Syria's Assad lashes out at France's Hollande ahead of polls

AFP , Thursday 16 Feb 2017

Syrian President Bashar Assad lashed out at his French counterpart on Thursday, accusing Francois Hollande of sponsoring terror in Syria and encouraging Western nations to reset their relations with his pariah government, after six years of civil war.

The comments, which came in an interview with to French media outlets Europe 1 and TF1, were the latest in a string of Assad's public remarks aimed at revamping his image in the West in the wake of military victories on the ground in Syria.

In the interview, Assad said the French president's policy is tantamount to "supporting terrorists" in Syria, adding that he would prefer someone who is "not a warmonger" to be the next French president.

Assad's government has labelled all armed opposition to his rule — including the Western-backed rebels — as "terrorists."

French voters are going to the polls to elect a new president on April 23.

Outgoing Hollande maintained former President Nikolas Sarkozy's position to support Syria's 2011 uprising against the Assad family rule. The revolt descended into all-out civil war, sparked by the government's brutal crackdown on demonstrations.

Hollande pushed hard for an international intervention in 2013, after more than 1,000 people were killed in a sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb. Several Western nations and human rights groups subsequently accused Assad's government of carrying out the attack.

Hollande argued that Assad's unchecked brutality fostered terror in the region.

France subsequently suffered from a number of attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, including the horrific multi-pronged Paris attack in November 2015 that killed over 100 people.

The intervention ultimately failed to materialize, with U.S. President Barack Obama securing a guarantee from Assad's sponsor Russia that Damascus would give up its chemical weapons stockpiles.

In the interview, which aired on Thursday, Assad took particular issue with Hollande's ardor for a military intervention in Syria.

"Hollande himself said it was a mistake not to launch a war in 2013," Assad said.

The interview comes on the heels of Assad's remarks last week to Yahoo News, in which the Syrian president said he would welcome U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, to join the battle against "terrorists" — as long as it is in cooperation with his government and respects his country's sovereignty.

Syria's six-year civil war has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced half the country's population. The country is shattered and the chaos has enabled the rise of the Islamic State group, which has managed to seize a substantial chunk of Syrian territory for its self-styled caliphate.

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