Syria's top diplomat told the world Saturday that his country's "battle against terrorism is almost over" after more than seven years of civil war, as an envoy from another of the planet's most troubled spots — North Korea — prepared to address the UN General Assembly.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem also vowed that the Syrian government will free the country from all "illegitimate" foreign troops. He vehemently restated denials that Damascus has used chemical weapons during the war — although international investigators have found otherwise — and he called on all refugees to return home, saying that is a priority for Damascus.
"Today, the situation on the ground is more stable and secure, thanks to combatting terrorism," he said. "All conditions are now present for the voluntary return of refugees."
He spoke at a time when Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have retaken most of the territory rebels seized during the war that has killed over 400,000 people and driven millions from their homes.
A military offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces on Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold, was averted last week in a deal reached between Russia and Turkey to set up a demilitarized zone around the province. Still, there is uncertainty over how the deal will be implemented; two insurgent groups have rejected it.
Idlib has been a relative refuge for people displaced by violence in other parts of the country, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said a full-scale battle for Idlib could unleash "a humanitarian nightmare" surpassing the misery already seen during the war.
Trump, speaking before the UN Security Council Wednesday, warned Assad against a far-reaching offensive on the northeastern region: "I hope the restraint continues. The world is watching."
Investigators from the UN and an international chemical weapons watchdog have attributed several chemical attacks during the war to government forces, while also blaming the Islamic State extremist group for at least one chemical assault. Syria has denied using chemical weapons in the fight.
"We fully condemn the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances," Moallem said. He said countries have lobbed "ready-made accusations" at Syria without what he described as any investigation or evidence.
The issue has been a flashpoint at the UN Security Council, with the U.S. and Western countries denouncing Assad over chemical attacks and Russia rejecting the investigators' findings. The U.S. has twice carried out its own airstrikes in response to the chemical attacks.
In November, Russia used its Security Council veto to block Western efforts to keep the investigative body going.
Meanwhile, the UN-led effort to bring Syria's warring factions together to work on a new constitution, which would pave the way for elections, would be held has been stalled for years.
Like Syria, North Korea could be on the cusp of significant developments.
U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration are trying to regain momentum in their quest to get North Korea to renounce its nuclear ambitions, first by following up on Trump's Singapore summit in June with the North's leader, Kim Jong Un. Syria could be on the verge of emerging from seven years of bloody conflict that included the use of chemical weapons.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning to visit Pyongyang next month to prepare for a second Kim-Trump summit. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also said this week that he wants to meet with Kim. Still, there is widespread skepticism that Kim will actually relinquish an arsenal that Pyongyang likely sees as the only way to guarantee the Kim dynasty's continued authoritarian rule.
In a wide-ranging news conference at the UN on Wednesday, Trump said he was optimistic Kim wants to get a deal done because of their now-warm relations. A year after the two traded insults and threats that raised fears of war, "we have a very good relationship," Trump said.
"He likes me, I like him, we get along," Trump said. "He wants to make a deal, and I'd like to make a deal."
On Wednesday, Pompeo met with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Pompeo said on Twitter that his meeting with Ri was "very positive," but did not give any details.
The North has traditionally said that the nuclear standoff is between it and the United States, but recent summits between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have dealt with the nuclear issue.
Nuclear envoys from the U.S. and ally South Korea have met three times during this week's U.N. meetings to talk about ways to end North Korea's pursuit of an arsenal of nuclear-armed long-range missiles.
South Korea's top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, met with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun from Wednesday to Thursday, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing the country's U.N. mission. Pompeo has reportedly said that he has invited the North Koreans to meet with Biegun in Vienna, Austria, at the "earliest opportunity."
North Korea hasn't responded yet to South Korea's proposal for Kang Kyung-wha to meet Ri on the assembly sidelines, Yonhap reported, citing an unidentified senior South Korean official.
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