Beirut (AFP) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacted Saturday to the deadly attacks in Paris, taking France to task and calling on it to change policies that he says have contributed to the “spread of terrorism”.
Across the Middle East, most Arab governments expressed shock and anger at the gun and bomb assault that left at least 128 people dead.
The Islamic State group, a jihadist organisation that has declared a self-styled “caliphate” across parts of Iraq and Syria, said it carried out the attacks.
In a meeting with a delegation of French lawmakers in Damascus the day after the attack, Assad said France’s “mistaken policies… have contributed to the spread of terrorism”.
“France has got to know what we live with in Syria.”
He said French President Francois Hollande “should change his policy.”
“The question that is being asked throughout France today is, was France’s policy over the past five years the right one? The answer is no.”
France has been a leading supporter of the Syrian opposition since soon after protests against Assad’s rule broke out in 2011.
Although Assad has hosted numerous right-wing parliamentary delegations from France, Paris remains staunchly opposed to his rule in Syria.
Hollande recently insisted that Assad “cannot be part of the solution” to Syria’s brutal war.
– Europe ‘did not listen’ –
France is also part of a US-led coalition conducting an air war against IS in both Syria and Iraq.
It has carried out air strikes in Iraq for more than a year and extended them to Syria in September.
“We warned against what would happen in Europe for the past three years,” Assad said on Saturday.
“We said, don’t take what is happening in Syria lightly. Unfortunately, European officials did not listen,” he said, in comments to the delegation broadcast by France’s Europe 1 radio.
The Syrian president regularly blames the West, including France, as well as Arab states for financing rebel groups in Syria.
Damascus considers all its opponents — including peaceful activists and non-Islamist groups — as “terrorists”.
Asked about potentially working with France in the fight against extremist groups such as IS, Assad said: “We cannot build cooperation between secret services without political cooperation.”
The head of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, the leading political anti-Assad body, denounced the Paris attacks.
Khaled Khoja expressed the “strongest condemnation of the horrific terrorist attacks of Paris and… we confirm our solidarity with our friends — the French nation.”
In a statement in English, he called on the international community to “eliminate all kinds of terrorism… including all regimes which patron and finance it; on top of which is the regime of Bashar (al-)Assad.”
Other Arab countries, as well as Iran, strongly denounced the Paris attacks.
– Condemnation by Assad backers –
A key backer of Assad throughout Syria’s war, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the attacks “crimes against humanity”.
Hassan Nasrallah, chief of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah that has fought in Syria alongside Assad’s forces, expressed “strong condemnation and denunciation of the terrorist attack by the criminals of Daesh in Paris”.
A joint statement by 49 rebel groups in Syria condemned “in the strongest terms” the Paris attacks, calling the IS action there “criminal attacks that are against (Islamic) laws and human values”.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates condemned the “terrorist” attacks and called for international cooperation to eradicate “this dangerous and destructive scourge”.
Qatar condemned the “armed attacks and bombings”, saying they “contradict all moral and humanitarian principles and values”.
The head of Sunni Islam’s leading seat of learning, Egypt’s Al-Azhar, condemned the “hateful incident” and urged “the world to unite to confront this monster”.
The top Sunni Muslim religious authority in Saudi Arabia, the council of senior ulemas, said the attacks which also wounded 300 people were “contrary to Islam and its principles”.
And Bassem Naim, head of the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas’s Council of International Relations, called the attacks “acts of aggression and barbarity”.