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Syrian President Calls Donald Trump a ‘Natural Ally’ in Fight Against Terrorism

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Destroyed buildings in the Syrian village of Kfar Jales, near Idlib, on Wednesday, following air strikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes.

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Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in his first remarks since the American election, has called President-elect Donald J. Trump “a natural ally, together with the Russians, Iranians and many other countries” in the struggle against terrorism.

The comments from Mr. Assad were no surprise, given that Mr. Trump has suggested that he would end American aid to certain rebel groups and work with Mr. Assad and his ally, Russia. Mr. Assad has blamed the Obama administration and what the Syrian president calls Islamist militants for the five-year civil war in his country, which has claimed nearly half a million lives and has fueled a refugee exodus that has roiled Western democracies.

But the remarks — in which Mr. Assad also expressed skepticism about American intentions — underscored the urgency of the policy challenge that faces Mr. Trump, who has struggled to form a national security team. Senior Republican officials who might have served in Mr. Trump’s administration warned before Nov. 8 that his election would put the United States “at risk.” Mr. Trump has also criticized President Obama’s handling of the Syrian civil war, but he has not outlined how he would work with Russia and with Mr. Assad or how such cooperation would fit with his promises to get tough on Mr. Assad’s other main ally, Iran.

In the interview published Tuesday evening with RTP, Portugal’s public broadcaster, Mr. Assad drew attention to the limits of executive power in the United States, even in a presidency as unusual as Mr. Trump’s.

“We do not have high expectations because the U.S. administration is not restricted to the president,” Mr. Assad said. “There are different powers within this administration, various ‘lobbies’ that will influence any president.”

Mr. Assad suggested that “opposing forces within the administration” as well as opposition from what he called the “mainstream media” cast doubt on whether Mr. Trump “can deliver on his promises.” But he added: “If — if — he fights the terrorists, it is clear that we will be a natural ally, together with the Russians, Iranians and many other countries who want to defeat the terrorists.” The Syrian government has tended to call all its opponents terrorists.

Emile Hokayem, a scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Mr. Assad had long calculated that, over time, Western countries would either adopt his view that the rebels were all radicalized jihadists, or prioritize fighting terrorist groups over support for the moderate forces challenging Mr. Assad’s rule.

“This was a waiting game par excellence, one perfected by his father and now him, and one that seems to be paying off: give up nothing, feed and survive the chaos, and wait for the others to cave or rethink,” Mr. Hokayem said in an interview. “Of course, he would have never dreamed of such a gift as a Trump presidency which, judging from the president-elect’s statements, would drop support for the rebels, focus on combating ISIS and seek a rapprochement with Russia. An America that cares less about humanitarian concerns and the laws of conflict, and seeks cooperation with Russia — that’s Christmas every day for Assad.”

Some Syrian rebel groups, long frustrated that the Obama administration has not given them greater military support, say they are bracing for a complete cessation of American aid, but express hope that allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey will continue to supply them, even in defiance of the Trump administration.

“The U.S. is likely to decisively drop its support for Syrian rebels,” Mr. Hokayem said, “but much will depend on Trump’s relations with Putin and perception of the returns of such a change in approach.” Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have spoken by phone and talked about improving relations, according to the Kremlin.

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In a picture released by the state-run Syrian news agency, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria speaking during an interview with RTP, Portugal’s public broadcaster.

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SANA

On Wednesday, heavy bombardment of the rebel-held eastern districts of the besieged city of Aleppo continued, as part of a new offensive by Russia and Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, the death toll from the new offensive stood at 32, including six children.

“Life is upside down here,” said Zaher Azaher, a resident of eastern Aleppo, who added that his home had been hit for a second time.

In Waer, a rebel-held enclave on the edge of the besieged city of Homs, mortars and rockets killed at least nine people and wounded 30 others, according to contacts reached there.

One resident, who asked to be identified only as Abu Abdo for his safety, said the area’s medical center had been damaged, along with many houses.

Bassem Ayoub, an activist who has stayed in eastern Aleppo for the entire siege, said that warplanes had been “hovering freely in the sky” since Tuesday morning, adding: “The situation on the ground is really bad.”

“We are running short of flour,” he said. “Today, all the bakeries in Mashhad area have closed, only one is still functioning — the owner said he would close it after he bakes the last bag of flour.”

Humanitarian officials warned last week that an estimated 250,000 in Aleppo, down to their last rations, were in grave danger.

On Tuesday, protests erupted in a rebel-held neighborhood, with residents leveling accusations of corruption against those in charge of aid distribution. Some warehouses were opened and food taken. There were several competing versions of how events unfolded, but some reports from locals said that rebels had fired over the heads of the crowd to prevent them from taking the limited rations that were left.

Mr. Ayoub added: “Nobody can control the situation here. Civilians were fed up, so they decided to open the warehouses that belong to different humanitarian organizations.”

Hisham Skeif, a member of one of the local councils in Aleppo, said that the Assad government was trying to sow chaos, forcing desperate civilians to raid the warehouses for grain. “People are hungry, we understand, but we’re trying to keep things under control, there is oppression, there is anger, I do agree, but the regime is triggering reaction, using starvation as an excuse,” he warned.

The Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, told the news agency Interfax on Wednesday that Moscow’s airstrikes in Syria were targeted, proportionate and measured.

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