Bashar al-Assad's interview: denial as a strategy

Bashar al-Assad's interview: denial as a strategy
In a rare interview, a defiant if at times 'flippant' Syrian president Bashar al-Assad denies that his regime deployed prohibited weapons against its own people, insisting that his regime is fighting 'terrorists'.
4 min read
10 February, 2015
Bashar al-Assad has fought against opposition forces since the Syrian uprising's start in 2011 (AFP)

President Bashar al-Assad has denied that his forces have indiscriminately used makeshift barrel bombs and prohibited the use of chemical weapons against Syrians in the four year old civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions internally and externally displaced.

In an interview with the BBC, the head of the Syrian regime adopted a familiar strategy, that of denial.  

When asked about the use of barrel bombs, Assad insisted that his forces deploy only conventional weapons, adding in a tone that the BBC’s Middle East editor, who conducted the interview, described as rather flippant:

"I haven't heard of (the) army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots," he said, laughing.

"We have bombs, missiles and bullets," he added, dismissing claims that his forces were using indiscriminate weapons.

"There are no indiscriminate weapons. When you shoot, you aim, and when you shoot, when you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians," he said.

He also denied claims that Syria's government had used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013, in an attack outside Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people.

"Who verified who threw that gas on who?" he said.

Asked if his government was responsible, he said "definitely not," adding that the reported death toll was "exaggerated."

After the August 2013 attack that much of the international community blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's government, the regime agreed to turn over its chemical arsenal in a Russian and US-brokered deal.

In September 2014, the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) appointed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to examine the alleged use of chlorine gas as a weapon in Syria found information constituting “compelling confirmation” that a toxic chemical was used “systematically and repeatedly” as a weapon in villages in northern Syria. 

The FFM’s report presented the key findings from dozens of interviews with victims, physicians, first responders and eyewitnesses to the attacks, together with a considerable amount of documentation such as video, medical records and other evidence.

The BBC posted the interview online. Watch it here. 

Indirect communications with USA

In the same interview, Assad said that Damascus receives "information" about air strikes by the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) group in Syria.

"Sometimes, they convey a message, a general message," he said in an interview with the BBC in Damascus.

"There is no dialogue. There's, let's say, information, but not dialogue.

"There's no direct cooperation," he added, saying the messages came to Damascus through third parties.

"More than one party, Iraq and other countries. Sometimes they convey messages, general messages. But there's nothing tactical," he said.

Damascus has grudgingly accepted the strikes against IS on its territory that began on September 23 last year, but has repeatedly criticised the coalition for failing to coordinate with it.

It says the raids cannot defeat IS unless the international community starts cooperating with Syrian troops on the ground.

Assad said the US-led strikes had the potential to help his government if they were "more serious."

"Yes, it will have some benefits, but if it was more serious and more effective and more efficient. It's not that much."

Washington has ruled out cooperating with Assad's government against IS, and the Syrian leader said Damascus had no interest in joining the coalition.

"No, definitely we cannot and we don't have the will and we don't want, for one simple reason -- because we cannot be in an alliance with countries which support terrorism."

The comment appeared to be a reference to coalition support for other rebels groups fighting to overthrow him, all of which his government derides as "terrorists".

Assad said US officials "easily trample over international law, which is about our sovereignty now, so they don't talk to us, we don't talk to them."

Two rounds of UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland have failed to achieve progress, but the UN's latest envoy on the conflict, Staffan De Mistura, was in Damascus for new talks on Tuesday.

He is expected to discuss the plan for a "freeze" of fighting in the main northern city of Aleppo, where government troops have encircled the rebel-held east.

More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since peaceful anti-regime protests started in March 2011