The Latest: Iran official hopes Syria expels US ‘occupiers’

The Latest: Iran official hopes Syria expels US 'occupiers'
The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the Syrian conflict (all times local):

3:40 p.m.

An aide to Iran’s supreme leader says he hopes Syrian forces will “expel the American occupiers” in the country’s northeast after they retake other areas of the country from insurgents.

Ali Akbar Velayati, speaking in the Syrian capital on Thursday, said he visited eastern Ghouta a day earlier, calling the capture of the Damascus suburbs one of the most important victories of the seven-year civil war.

Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has sent thousands of troops and allied militiamen to support his forces.

Velayati said he hoped the northern Idlib province, which is dominated by al-Qaida militants would be the next to fall to government forces. He said Assad’s forcers should then push east of the Euphrates River, where U.S. troops are embedded with Kurdish forces.

He said: “We are hopeful that major and extensive steps are taken later to liberate this area and expel the American occupiers.”


3:05 p.m.

President Emmanuel Macron says France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks.

Macron said Thursday that France would not tolerate “regimes that think everything is permitted.” Speaking on TF1 television, Macron said “we have proof that chemical weapons were used, at least chlorine” in recent days by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

He did not say whether France is planning military action against Assad’s government. Macron said he has been talking regularly this week with U.S. President Donald Trump about the most effective response.

With increasing concerns about a U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria, Macron insisted that “France will not allow an escalation or something that could damage the stability” of the region. On Tuesday, Macron said any French action would target Syria’s chemical weapons abilities.

Syrian opposition activists and medics say a suspected gas attack last week in Douma killed more than 40 people. The Syrian government has denied the allegations.


3 p.m.

Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany won’t participate in possible military action in Syria, but supports sending a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.

Merkel stressed the importance of a united position in the face of a suspected chemical weapons attack that the West is blaming on President Bashar Assad’s forces. She said she spoke Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Merkel said in Berlin: “Germany will not take part in possible military action — I want to make clear again that there are no decisions — but we see, and support this, that everything is being done to send a signal that this use of chemical weapons is not acceptable.”


2:45 p.m.

Russia has warned the U.S. and its allies against any steps that could destabilize the situation in Syria.

Asked to comment on possible U.S. strikes, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Thursday that “it’s necessary to avoid any steps that may fuel tensions in Syria.” Dmitry Peskov added that it would have an “utterly destructive impact on the Syrian settlement.”

Peskov wouldn’t say if Moscow could use a Russian-U.S. military hotline to avoid escalation in the event of a U.S. strike, saying only that “the hotline exists and has remained active.”

President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday to “get ready” for a missile attack on its ally Syria, but tweeted Thursday that it may come “very soon or not so soon at all!”

The U.S. and its allies have threatened to respond militarily to an alleged chemical attack near Damascus last weekend.


2:30 p.m.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will discuss ways of ending “the chemical massacre” in Syria during a telephone call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan said he’ll talk to Putin later on Thursday, a day after he talked to President Donald Trump about Syria.

Erdogan’s remarks appear to criticize an exchange of threats by the United States and Russia, saying Turkey was “deeply disturbed by some countries that rely on their military might, turning Syria into a virtual wrestling ground.”

Erdogan says Turkey’s warming ties with Russia and Iran are “not an alternative” to its traditional ties to the West, adding that Ankara would “fight until the end” against Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and against U.S. support to a Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara has labelled a terrorist group.


1:45 p.m.

Syrian President Bashar Assad says Western threats to strike his country after a suspected chemical attack are based on “lies” and seek to undermine his forces’ recent advances near Damascus.

The U.S. and its allies threatened military action after an alleged gas attack by government forces over the weekend that Syrian opposition activists and medics say killed more than 40 people. The Syrian government has denied the allegations.

Assad said Thursday that Western countries were lashing out after they lost their “bet” on opposition forces in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital. Russia, a key ally of Assad, says government forces have taken full control of the town of Douma, the last rebel holdout in the region and the scene of Saturday’s alleged attack.

Assad says the Western threats endanger international peace and security, and that military action would only contribute to the “further destabilization” of the region.

Assad spoke during a meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader.


12:20 p.m.

Kuwait’s national carrier says it is suspending flights to Lebanon in line with security warnings from airline authorities concerning a possible strike on neighboring Syria.

Kuwait Airways released the statement overnight, saying flights to Beirut would be suspended from Thursday until further notice.

A day earlier, European airspace authorities warned aircraft to be careful over the next few days when flying close to Syria because of the possibility of air or missile strikes into the country.

The U.S. and its allies have threatened to take military action in response to an alleged chemical attack last weekend. Syrian activists and rescuers say the attack on Douma killed more than 40 people, allegations denied by the government.


12:15 p.m.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has summoned her Cabinet back from vacation to discuss military action against Syria over an alleged chemical weapons attack.

May has indicated she wants Britain to join in any U.S.-led strikes in response to the suspected attack near Damascus. She has said the use of chemical weapons “cannot go unchallenged.”

The U.S., France and Britain have been consulting about launching a military strike, and President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday that missiles “will be coming.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defense refused to comment on reports that Royal Navy submarines armed with cruise missiles have been dispatched to within range of Syria.

British opposition lawmakers are calling for Parliament to be given a vote on military action. That is not a legal requirement, though it is a convention.

Syrian opposition activists and rescuers say a chemical attack launched by government forces in a rebel-held area near Damascus late Saturday killed more than 40 people, allegations denied by the Syrian government.


11:50 a.m.

France says it will decide in the coming days whether to launch a military strike over a suspected chemical attack in Syria.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday that President Emmanuel Macron would decide whether to launch an attack over the “non-respect of the international convention against chemical weapons,” which is a “red line” for France.

Speaking to reporters in Romania, Le Drian says: “We are very firm…as the president of the Republic said…. this situation can’t be tolerated.”

Asked about consulting the U.S, which has also threatened military action, Le Drian said “France is autonomous in taking its decisions.”

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday warned of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack near Damascus that Syrian opposition activists and first responders say killed more than 40 people. Syria has denied carrying out such an attack.


10 a.m.

The Russian military says the Syrian government is now in full control of town on the outskirts of Damascus that was held by the rebels and that was the site of suspected chemical attack over the weekend.

The Defense Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the situation in the town of Douma, just east of the Syrian capital, is “normalizing.”

More than 13,500 Syrian rebel fighters and their families have left Douma this month under a so-called evacuation deal between the rebels and the Russian military, a top ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

The Russian ministry says 1,500 left the town in the past 24 hours.

There was no immediate confirmation or indication from Assad’s government that Syrian troops entered Douma on Thursday.