In a dramatic speech, Syria’s top diplomat has told the world that his country’s “battle against terrorism is almost over” and that, after more than seven years of brutal civil war, Syria is now ready to welcome back the more than 5 million people who fled the country.
Taking the stage to muted applause at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting on Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem slammed international interference in Syria, denied Damascus’ use of chemical weapons and accused the US-led coalition of war crimes.
With only Idlib province still under rebel control, al-Moallem explained confidently that the “situation on the ground has become more stable and secure” and that local reconciliation was well under way. He also thanked the Syrian people for their fortitude during the bloody conflict.
Throughout the speech, al-Moallem emphasised Syria’s right to sovereignty and decried the actions of a US-led coalition battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS or ISIL) for doing “everything but fight terrorism”.
He claimed the “illegitimate” coalition, which includes international players along with local and regional opposition forces, destroyed the Syrian city of Raqqa– a former ISIS stronghold – and took part in massacres of civilians, including women and children as a means of “spreading chaos in international relations” and promoting colonialism and hegemony.
Al-Moallem once again denied findings by UN investigators, which have attributed several of the at least 17 chemical attacks reported during the conflict to government forces.
“We fully condemn the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances,” he said, claiming that no unbiased investigation or evidence had been presented to link his government with chemical attacks.
The issue has been a flashpoint at the UN Security Council, with Russia vetoing efforts to investigate the Assad regime fully.
Shrinking rebel territory
Saturday’s speech came as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have retaken most of territory rebels seized during the war, which has killed more than 400,000 people.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from the United Nations, said al-Moallem’s “defiant” speech was intended to send a message to both the Syrian opposition and the international community.
“He was telling the Syrian opposition: ‘You’ve lost the war, you’ve got to come back home, you should forget [talking about] the future of Syria without Bashar al-Assad’,” said Ahelbarra.
During the speech, the Syrian foreign minister mentioned “occupation forces,” vowing that the Syrian government will free the country from all “illegitimate foreign troops”.
“He’s saying the presence of Turkish soldiers in the northern part of the country, American and French soldiers in the eastern part of the country, providing assistance to the Kurds is unacceptable and if they don’t pull out from those areas, then the Syrian army has all the legitimate authority to go ahead and liberate those areas,” said Ahelbarra.
“In one way or another [the international community] all realise that Assad has emerged as the winner, but the future is not guaranteed for any party in Syria,” he said.
Al-Moallem said that “doors are wide open for all Syrians abroad” to return home and that this will be a priority for Damascus.
Since the conflict began in 2011, some 5.6 million people have fled Syria, with as many as 6.6 million others internally displaced, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
“Today the situation on the ground is more stable and secure, thanks to combatting terrorism,” he said. “All conditions are now present for the voluntary return of refugees.”
Al-Moallem said Syria welcomes reconstruction aid from any country not involved in “aggression” towards Syria, but those offering conditional assistance were “neither invited or welcome to help”.
Towards the end of his address, al-Moallem briefly touched on international politics, chastising Israel for its “oppressive and aggressive policies” in Golan Heights and branding the country’s recently-passed nation state law as “racist”.
He also slammed the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and withdraw funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).