‘The Middle East is a powder keg, and the fire is approaching’: Assad says West has no proof regime carried out chem attack
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has largely remained in the shadows amid allegations that his regime killed more than 1,000 people in a chemical weapons attack, claimed in an interview with a French newspaper that his accusers — including the White House and the French government — have no evidence.
“Anyone accusing must give proof,” Assad told Le Figaro in interview excerpts published online Monday. “We have challenged the United States and France to come forward with a single proof.”
Assad’s government has strongly denied responsibility for the mass killing in the suburbs of Damascus, claiming that rebel insurgents launched the chemical weapons.
The Obama administration and French President Francois Hollande have charged Assad’s regime with perpetrating the horrific Aug. 21 chemical strike, which U.S. officials say killed some 1,426 people, including hundreds of children.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday said that samples collected by first responders after the attack have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.
And yet Assad remained defiant in his interview with Le Figaro, telling the newspaper that “Obama and Hollande have been incapable” to offer proof of his regime’s culpability “even in front of their people.”
But the White House on Friday released an intelligence report (.pdf) claiming “high confidence” that the Syrian government deployed the illegal chemical weapons. The report cited a “large body of independent sources” but acknowledged that not all the evidence could be declassified.
In a vague remark, Assad said: “I do not say that the Syrian army possesses or not these weapons.”
“Let’s suppose that our army wishes to uses these arms of massive destruction: is it possible that it would do it in a zone that it is itself based and where solders are injured as noted by the inspectors of the United Nations when they visited the hospital where they were treated?”
He added: “Is that logical?”
When asked how he would respond to potential military strikes against key Syrian targets, Assad suggested that the region will spiral into chaos, saying: “The Middle East is a powder keg, and the fire is approaching today.”
“We should not only talk about a Syrian riposte but what will happen after the first strike. No one knows what will happen. Everyone will lose control of the situation once the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists.”
For nearly two years already, Syria has been torn asunder by near-constant clashes between Assad’s military forces and disparate bands of rebel fighters. The violence was triggered by a 2011 revolt against Assad’s rule.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which had a pre-war population of around 20.8 million, said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
When asked if he regards the government of France, which has pledged to support the Obama administration’s potential strikes, as an “enemy,” Assad said: “Whoever contributes to the financial and military reinforcement is an enemy of the Syrian people. Whatever efforts against Syrian interests and its citizens is an enemy.”
Assad then said that the “French people are not our enemy but the politics of the State area or the politics of the French state are hostile to the Syrian people. In the case where the politics of French state is hostile to Syria, the State is our enemy. This hostility will end if the French state changes its politics.”
He then offered something of a threat to Hollande’s government, saying: “There will be repercussions, negative of course, on French interests.”
A French intelligence report published Monday charges the Syrian regime with launching the chemical attack and warns that the government could perpetrate other other, similar strikes in the future, according to The Associated Press.
The nine-page document produced by France’s military and foreign intelligence services details five points that suggest Assad’s forces mounted the deadly attack, a government source told Reuters.
The intelligence dosier is key to Hollande’s repeated calls for military action against Assad — paralleling the U.S. intelligence report released by the White House on Friday.
And nearly 50 amateur video clips reportedly filmed the morning of the chemical assault that show the effects on civilians have been authenticated by French military doctors, Reuters reported.