Syria says to 'defend itself' in case of military strikes

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syrian vowed on Tuesday that it will fight off any Western military strikes with what it called "surprise" defences, while raising the spectre of Islamists benefitting from such intervention.

"We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal. The second choice is the best: we will defend ourselves," said Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

He was speaking at a news conference as the United States and its allies edged closer to launching strikes against the Syrian regime amid accusations that it used chemical weapons against its own people.

Mr Muallem said the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which has been fighting an insurgency for the past 29 months, had defences that would "surprise" the world.

"Syria is not an easy case. We have defences which will surprise others," he said in Damascus.

Russian news agency Interfax said on Tuesday that Damascus government had enough air defence systems to rebuff attacks.

"If the US army together with NATO launch an operation against Syria, there won't be an easy victory," the agency quoted a military-diplomatic source as saying.

The Syrian minister said he was confident that Russia, a key ally of the Assad regime, would not abandon Damascus.

"I can assure you that Russia has not abandoned Syria. Our relations continue in all fields, and we thank Russia for its support," Mr Muallem told reporters.

He also charged that strikes would benefit Israel and jihadist groups in the Middle East.

"The war effort led by the United States and their allies will serve the interests of Israel and secondly Al-Nusra Front," an Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Syria, he said.

He challenged Western states to present evidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

"We are hearing war drums around us. If they want to launch an attack against Syria, I think using the excuse of chemical weapons is not true at all. I challenge them to show what proof they have," Mr Muallem said.

The minister also said foreign military intervention in the country would not stop the government's campaign against rebels.

"If they think they can stop the victory of our armed forces like that, they are wrong," he stressed.

The intensifying Western moves to take military action came as a team of UN arms experts collected evidence from the site of the alleged chemical weapons attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, which reportedly killed more than 300 people.

The inspectors had been due to visit the sites again on Tuesday, but Mr Muallem said their trip had been postponed for a day because rebels failed to guarantee their security.

"Today, we were surprised by the fact that they were not able to get there because the rebels did not agree to guarantee the mission's security. So the mission has been delayed until tomorrow," said Mr Muallem.

The group was originally due to leave Syria on Sunday, but their stay could be extended as they investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in the conflict that has killed

more than 100,000 people.