Defiant Assad blames US for collapse of Syria truce and denies Aleppo is under siege

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 10:07pm

He’s been stigmatised internationally, a contentious figure presiding over a ruinous civil war that seems to slip into further depravity every day.

But in his power base in the Syrian capital, President Bashar Assad projected confidence — conceding nothing to his critics, and accusing the US of derailing a cease-fire and lacking the “will” to fight extremists in his country.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Assad rejected US accusations that Syrian or Russian planes struck an aid convoy in Aleppo this week and that his troops were preventing food from entering the city’s rebel-held areas. He maintained deadly airstrikes by the US-led coalition on Syrian troops last weekend were intentional, dismissing American officials’ statements that they were an accident.

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In Washington, the State Department countered that Assad’s assertions were “ridiculous.”

While acknowledging that the war will “drag on” indefinitely as long as his opponents were still receiving external support from countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Assad said Syria will bounce back as a more unified state, and pledged to rebuild the ruined country and even welcome back refugees if assistance to the insurgents were to stop.

If there’s really a siege around the city of Aleppo, people would have been dead by now
Bashar Assad

The sense of detachment projected by the 51-year-old Assad was striking. While acknowledging some mistakes, he denied any excesses by his troops and claimed the rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, weren’t really under siege.

“If there’s really a siege around the city of Aleppo, people would have been dead by now,” Assad said, and questioned how rebels were able to smuggle in arms but apparently not food or medicine.

The ancient city, which has become both a symbol of resistance and the high price that civilians are paying in the war, has been carved into rebel- and government-controlled areas since 2012. It’s eastern, rebel-held neighbourhoods are encircled by government forces and there are reports of malnutrition and severe shortages of food and medical supplies.

The UN has accused Assad’s government of obstructing aid access to the city, despite an agreement to allow aid in during the weeklong cease-fire that ended Monday. During the brief truce, trucks carrying aid sat idle on the nearby Turkish border, awaiting permits and safety guarantees.

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Throughout the conflict, Assad’s forces have been accused of bombing hospitals and civilians and choking opposition-held cities. Millions have fled Syria, some drowning at sea in the Mediterranean while trying to reach safety.

Assad denied any hospitals were purposely targeted. “They accuse Syria of attacking hospitals, so you have hospitals and you have doctors and you have everything. How could you have them?”

The war has been defined by gruesome photos and video posted in the aftermath of bloody attacks or documenting the plight of children in particular. The images have galvanised public opinion worldwide - but Assad, while acknowledging that the war had been “savage,” said the accounts should not be automatically believed.

“Those witnesses only appear when there’s an accusation against the Syrian army or the Russian (army), but when the terrorists commit a crime or massacre ... you don’t see any witnesses,” he said. “What a coincidence.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby, commenting on Assad’s assertions, said: “It’s difficult to see how these ridiculous claims deserve a response, except to say they prove yet again the degree to which Assad has lost his legitimacy to govern and how vital it remains for the international community to achieve a political solution that gives the Syrian people a voice in their future.”

Syria and the United States have been at loggerheads since an airstrike by the US-led coalition that hit Syrian troops in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour on Saturday. US officials said the attack — the first direct hit on Syrian forces since the civil war began — was accidental and that the warplanes intended to target Islamic State group positions. Russia said the strikes killed more than 60 Syrian troops, and afterward, IS militants briefly overran government positions in the area until they were beaten back.

Assad dismissed the US account, saying the attack targeted a “huge” area for more than an hour.

“It wasn’t an accident by one airplane... It was four airplanes,” Assad said. “You don’t commit a mistake for more than one hour.”

Assad also flatly rejected US accusations that Syrian or Russian planes carried out an attack on an aid convoy on the outskirts of Aleppo that killed 20 people, many of them aid workers.