Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said that Damascus is "willing to cooperate with any country" -- including the United States -- that is willing to "fight terrorism."
In a lengthy interview with the U.S. foreign-policy magazine Foreign Affairs published online on January 26, Assad criticized the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group for carrying out what he said were illegal strikes against militants on Syrian territory.
This criticism is nothing new. Both the Assad government and its major ally Russia have accused the United States of carrying out unlawful air strikes in Syria, on the grounds that Washington and its allies have not asked permission from Damascus to carry out the activity.
However, in his January 26 interview, Assad said that he would like to see the United States "make legal cooperation with Syria and start by asking permission from our government to make such attacks. They didn't, so it's illegal."
Assad went on to say that the format of any agreement between Washington and Damascus "we can discuss later, but you start with permission."
The Syrian president also said that the potential for increased cooperation with the United States was "always there" but was careful to establish the context of such cooperation, and the fight against IS, within the framework of the "war against terrorism," a major theme in the diplomatic and information strategy pursued by Damascus and led by its main ally, Russia.
"We've been talking about or asking for international cooperation against terrorism for 30 years. But this potential needs will," Assad said.
Another of the main elements of the information campaign waged by Damascus in concert with Moscow is to emphasize the role played by the Syrian Arab Army and loyalist forces in combating the IS group on the ground.
The Syrian president stressed this point again in his Foreign Affairs interview, raising the question of whether the United States has the will, as he termed it, to "really fight terrorism on the ground."
"So far, we haven't seen anything concrete in spite of the attacks on [the IS group] in northern Syria. There's nothing concrete. What we've seen so far is just, let's say, window dressing," Assad said.
Assad went on to assert that "to make war on terrorism, you have to have troops on the ground" and posed the question, "Which troops are you going to rely on?"
"Definitely it has to be Syrian troops," Assad told Foreign Affairs, adding that it was the United States, and not Damascus, that should show it was willing to cooperate. "We are already fighting on the ground," he added.
Assad's remarks regarding the issue of cooperation with the United States in the fight against the IS group come amid questions in the U.S. media as to whether the changed and changing situation in Syria will mean that the United States and its allies will have to "learn to live with" the Syrian president, as The New York Times put it in a January 24 editorial.
"The greater threat now is not Mr. Assad but the Islamic State, especially if it continues to expand in Syria, entices more foreign fighters into its ranks and uses its territory to launch attacks on the West," The New York Times wrote.
Assad's comments to Foreign Affairs regarding cooperation in fighting the IS group also comes after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed a similar position in his annual press conference on January 21. Lavrov said that the fight against Islamist extremism in Syria should take priority over ousting Assad from power.
Lavrov used the press conference to note that there had been signs that U.S. views regarding how to end the Syrian conflict are changing. Referring to U.S. President Barack Obama's 2015 State of the Union speech of January 20, Lavrov said that Obama had named "the task of fighting these terrorists...paramount compared with the everything else related to overcoming the Syrian crisis.... The main thing is to quickly translate this into practical action."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk