West is meddling in Syria's affairs, government spokesman says

Syria's foreign ministry spokesman tells the Associated Press Western governments are interferring when it comes to their handling of the protests that have rocked the Middle Eastern country since last year.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
People burn portraits of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad during a demonstration against his regime in the outskirts of Idlib, northern Syria, Sunday Feb. 26.

A Syrian official on Monday accused the West of taking advantage of the Middle Eastern country's unrest to try to destabilize it and warned the opposition that militarizing is a big mistake that will backfire.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the only way out of the current crisis that has killed thousands of people is for all parties to sit around the negotiating table and engage in dialogue.

He spoke Monday in a rare interview in Damascus with The Associated Press.

The government of President Bashar Assad has for months been battling an uprising of Syrians calling for his ouster. Western countries, including the U.S., have condemned the increasingly bloody methods Assad's government has used to put down the revolt.

Activist groups on Monday said the death toll from nearly a year of unrest has surpassed 8,000 people, mostly civilians.

The Syrian government says it is fighting against armed groups pushing a foreign agenda.

"The West took advantage of the awakening of the Syrian street. Instead of helping Syria to overcome this painful crisis, they are using this to hit the stability of Syria for other geopolitical reasons," Makdissi said.

The spokesman would not elaborate on what he meant, but Syria occupies a complex place in the Middle East that affects and is affected by Iran, Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.

Syria maintains an intricate web of allegiances to powerful forces, including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iran.

The toppling of Assad would mark a major blow to Iran, which depends on Damascus as its main Arab ally and a pathway to aid Iran's proxy Hezbollah.

"Syria suffers from the curse of Syria's geopolitics," Makdissi said.

While U.S. officials have warned against taking actions that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria, many in the opposition now say openly that they are getting arms through smuggling routes.

The Saudi foreign minister said at a Friends of Syria nations meeting in Tunis Friday that arming the rebels fighting Assad is "an excellent idea."

But Makdissi rejected the notion that the opposition is simply defending itself. He called the move to arm itself was " of the biggest mistakes of the opposition."

"When they carry out bombings and assassinations, are they defending themselves?" he asked.

He admitted mistakes on the part of the authorities, but said the Syrian government responded early on to the demands of reform. Instead, he blamed the opposition, which he said refused to talk.

"It takes two to tango," he said. "In the end, we have no choice but to sit around the same table."

Makdissi said the opposition lacked any kind of vision or alternate plan to the current regime.

"They want to take Syria toward the unknown," he said.

He dismissed the decision by the Palestinian militant Islamic movement, Hamas, to pull its operations out of Syria and the group's recent criticism of the Assad regime as a "detail." The spokesman said the Syrian regime will continue to support the Palestinian cause.

A senior Hamas official said Monday that Hamas has left its longtime base in Syria because of the regime's crackdown on opponents there.

"Our position on Syria is that we are not with the regime in its security solution, and we respect the will of the people," Moussa Abu Marzouk said from his new base in Cairo.

Syria has long been criticized by the West for aiding and sheltering members of Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups, a stance that gives it legitimacy and prestige in the Arab world while also letting it subvert neighboring Israel. The decision by Hamas to pull out of Syria is a sign of the regime's increasing isolation.

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