PARIS/GENEVA/astana -  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defended President Donald Trump’s ban on Syrians entering the US, saying it targeted “terrorists” and not the Syrian people, in an interview broadcast Thursday.

Trump last month summarily denied entry to all refugees for 120 days and barred Syrian refugees indefinitely. The highly controversial decree, which was suspended by a federal judge, also barred travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, for 90 days.

In an interview with French media Assad expressed understanding for the ban.

“It’s not against the Syrian people... it’s against the terrorists that could infiltrate some of the immigrants to the West and that happened. It happened in Europe, mainly in Germany and could happen in the United States,” he told Europe 1 radio and TF1 television channels in the interview in Damascus.

“For me, as president, I would not worry about that,” he said, accusing Trump’s critics of seizing on the ban “as the fuel for the conflict with Trump.”

The interview came as Syrian government representatives and rebel groups began new peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The talks aim to shore up a faltering six-week truce and pave the way for new UN-brokered talks on a political solution to the six-year conflict.

Assad revealed that retaking the Islamic State’s Syrian bastion of Raqa - a key objective of the US-led coalition battling the militants - was not a priority for his forces. “Raqa is a symbol,” he said.

“You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere,” Assad said, using another acronym for IS. “For us it is all the same, Raqa, Palmyra, Idlib, it’s all the same,” vowing to win back “every inch” of Syrian territory.

Syrian regime and rebel representatives failed Thursday to make any breakthroughs at talks in Kazakhstan, as key powerbrokers Russia, Turkey and Iran sought to shore up a shaky ceasefire.

The meeting was the second time key players Moscow, Tehran and Ankara have brought the warring sides to the Kazakh capital of Astana, and comes ahead of a new round of UN-led talks on Syria in Geneva on February 23.

Turkish bombardment of an Islamic State group-held town in Syria has killed 34 civilians in one day, a monitor said Thursday, but Turkey's army said only "terrorists" died in the operation.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead in air strikes and shelling on the town of Al-Bab had killed 24 civilians - including 11 children - by Thursday morning.

Renewed bombardment later in the day killed another ten civilians, among them six children, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Instead regime allies Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey followed up an earlier pledge by agreeing to set up a joint monitoring group to try to ensure a fragile six-week truce in the war-torn country.

"The question of observing the ceasefire is being solved and we are hopeful to solve political questions too," Russian mediator Alexander Lavrentiev said.

Lead rebel negotiator Mohammad Alloush said that the meeting "didn't achieve anything practical" but claimed the armed opposition received several pledges from Moscow.

Russia promised to stop shelling opposition areas and to help push for the release of political prisoners, he said, as well as to send a "schedule" for the end of a regime seige around Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Main backer Russia has billed the talks in Astana as a prelude to the upcoming UN negotiations in Switzerland, despite speculation that it was trying to sideline the West with the latest initiative.

Moscow has increasingly taken the lead on pushing talks over Syria after its military intervention on the side of leader Bashar al-Assad helped turn the tables in the protracted conflict.

"The Astana meeting has paved the way for the next Geneva conference," lead Syrian regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari said, blaming Turkey and rebels it backs for the failure to produce a final statement.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari said that the sides were at "the beginning of a difficult road."

Ansari, who led his country's delegation, said the sides would meet again in "less than a month" in either Astana, Moscow, Tehran or Ankara.

A first set of talks on Syria that took place in Astana in January saw the rebels refuse to talk directly to the regime and did not result in any significant breakthrough.

Before the Astana talks began, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was in Moscow for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

"Now is the right time to step up efforts to normalise the political process in Syria," de Mistura told Lavrov in comments translated into Russian by the state-run TASS news agency.

 

 

 

 

 

AFP/Reuters