x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Assad appears on Fox News to convince US public over chemical weapons

In an interview that aired on Fox News Channel, Syrian President Al Assad dismissed the claim that his military was responsible for the poison gas attack on August 21, saying the “story doesn’t even hold together”.

Syria's President Bashar Al Assad speaks during an interview with Fox News channel in Damascus.

Syria's President Bashar Al Assad speaks during an interview with Fox News channel in Damascus. REUTERS/SANA

Taimur Khan

Foreign Correspondent

New York // Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has stepped up his campaign to sway US public opinion and discredit the Obama administration, saying the United Nations report painted an “unrealistic” account of the chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

In an interview that aired on Fox News Channel, Mr Al Assad dismissed the claim by the United States and its Arab and European allies that his military was responsible for the poison gas attack on August 21, saying the “story doesn’t even hold together”.

Mr Al Assad instead claimed rebels fighting his government carried out the attack that Washington alleges killed over 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.

“Sarin gas is called kitchen gas,” he said in the interview aired late on Wednesday in the US. “You know why? Because anybody can make sarin in his house. Any rebel can make sarin. Second, we know that all the rebels are supported by governments. So any government that would have such chemical can hand it over.”

US President Barack Obama, Mr Al Assad said, should “follow the common sense” of the American people and not involve the country in another war in the Middle East.

He added that his government has turned over evidence that showed rebels carried out the attack to Russia, and that Russian satellite imagery showed that rockets used in the attack were launched from rebel-held areas.

Syria’s key ally, Russia, said yesterday it had strong grounds to suspect that rebels had carried out the attacks.

Speaking at a news conference, Russian president Vladimir Putin said: “We have every reason to believe that it was a provocation, a sly and ingenious one.” The rebels relied on “primitive” technology, using old Soviet-made ammunition no longer in the Syrian army’s inventory, he added.

Mr Al Assad said that his government would honour the agreement reached with the US and Russian officials to give up his chemical weapons arsenal. He estimated that the process of destroying the weapons would take about a year and cost US$1billion (Dh3.67bn), an expense he invited Washington to pay.

“We are committed to the full requirement of this agreement,” he said.

Mr Putin said he was confident that the Assad regime would carry out its commitments as outlined by the US-Russia deal.

“Will we manage to carry it through? I can’t say 100 per cent, but all that we have seen recently, in the last few days, inspires confidence that it is possible and that it will be done,” he said

The Assad interview was conducted in Damascus on Tuesday by former Democratic congressman and Fox News contributor, Dennis Kucinich, and senior Fox correspondent, Greg Palkot.

It took place one day after the United Nations made public a report on the August 21 attack by its chemical weapons experts, the first independent scientists to visit the eastern outskirts of Damascus where the attack occurred.

Their report concluded that sarin had been used on a large scale, but the inspectors were allowed to visit the sites on condition that their investigation would not assign blame.

Despite the restriction, their report included many substantial clues that independent weapons experts said all pointed to Syrian military culpability. US officials said this confirmed their own intelligence assessments.

The evidence included the type of Russian munitions used in the attack, the purity of the sarin gas, and the trajectory of the rockets — which the independent experts concluded could only have originated from government-controlled Mount Qasioun.

US defence officials have maintained that the threat of unilateral US military force is still an option if Syria does not abide by the disarmament resolution that diplomats in the UN Security Council hope to complete today.

But in recent days the rhetoric in Washington has been scaled back as already dismal Congressional support for US action becomes even weaker.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said that tight deadlines must be met by Mr Al Assad to verify adherence to the process, but a State Department spokeswoman implied Wednesday that the administration would not insist that the full declaration of Syria’s chemical stockpile be produced by tomorrow, a condition set last week.

“The goal is to see forward momentum … we’ve never said it was a hard and fast deadline,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Mr Al Assad and his supporters will likely be heartened by the softening US position, only weeks after air strikes seemed imminent, as well as developments on the ground in the two-and-a-half year civil war that has seen more than 100,000 deaths and nearly 7 million displaced.

On Wednesday battles broke out between relatively moderate and western-backed Free Syria Army rebel factions and extremist groups also fighting the Syrian government.

Fighters with Al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), stormed a city on the Turkish border and forced out the FSA units that had been in control of Azaz, in Aleppo province.

Turkey temporarily closed the nearby border post yesterday.

The fighting in Azaz erupted when ISIS fighters attempted to detain a German doctor with Medicins Sans Frontieres working at a hospital in the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. FSA rebels stopped the Al Qaeda fighters from taking the doctor, who escaped safely into Turkey, but the episode sparked an intense battle in the city that ended in a rout of the FSA.

A roadside bomb also struck a bus yesterday in the predominantly Alawite village of Jbourin, killing 19 people, a government official said.

The battlefield ascendancy of extremist factions who now control swathes of north-east Syria is renewing concern in Europe about home-grown militants who have joined the fight and may return home to carry out terrorist attacks.