Syrian President Assad fires back at US in exclusive interview

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Qatar-based Al Jazeera aired excerpts of an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad Thursday, including an exchange in which the defiant leader said he doesn’t trust the United States to help resolve the crisis, and that Russia and Iran are the only countries with the strength to negotiate a settlement.

The interview, which had been embargoed for Wednesday, was conducted Tuesday in Damascus for the Emirati state-funded news network, which has clashed with Qatar’s government over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned movement that currently runs Egypt.

The one-hour interview focused on the Syrian president’s defense of Russia’s airstrikes against rebels who are fighting to oust him and the implications of President Barack Obama’s apparent reluctance to get militarily involved in the crisis.

Also in the interview were excerpts from a conversation Assad held Monday with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who has spearheaded foreign policy in the Gulf, particularly in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The interview, which coincides with an unprecedented visit of a UAE foreign minister to Damascus, shows Assad expanding his circle of strategic partners beyond Iran and Russia. While the UAE is not a signatory to the 1991 international accord that led to the end of Syria’s war with Israel, it has been at the forefront of efforts to keep diplomacy from deteriorating into war, hosting talks that have followed each cease-fire in Syria’s grinding conflict.

Since Russia’s airstrikes began last month, Assad has pushed back against Western- and Gulf-backed military efforts aimed at ending his rule. His regime is backed by Iran and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group, as well as Russian airstrikes that have sometimes targeted U.S.-backed anti-Assad fighters in the northern province of Aleppo.

In the interview, Assad appeared dismissive of his international critics. The U.S. has said it is unclear who is targeting whom in Russian airstrikes, and while Assad denied his forces attack civilians, he said the only forces to speak of are “terrorist groups” including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

“The Syrian state, of course, should attack terrorists,” he said. “It is not our target.”

Like Assad, he made the argument that the West and others haven’t provided any evidence that the government has carried out atrocities against the opposition, and asked why those forces, including al-Qaida, which may be fighting for his regime, are still in government hands.

The full interview will be aired Friday, according to Al Jazeera.

UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Syria is his highest-profile visit since the outbreak of the three-year conflict in the Arab country, which shares a border with the UAE.

While the UAE has backed rebels inside Syria, including through funding and arming, it has refrained from openly sending ground troops.

Al Nahyan’s visit comes as the kingdom’s position on the civil war is becoming murkier.

Qatar has been aligned with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that have taken a hard line on Syria, while the UAE has sought to mediate in the conflict, hosting talks involving representatives of the warring parties and allowing at least five diplomats to enter the country.

Besides Al Nahyan, Khaled al-Attiyah, the secretary-general of the GCC-Gulf Cooperation Council, and Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Hamli, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, are due to visit Damascus, according to the Syrian foreign ministry.

In its coverage of the UAE ministers’ arrival in Syria, state-owned Syria TV issued a commentary from Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying the visit showed the UAE was “committed to finding solutions” for Syria.

While the UAE has welcomed moderate opposition groups seeking to oust Assad, Al Nahyan made clear that the opposition is without a coherent leadership that could convince Iran and Russia to help end the war.

“The leaders of the (opposition) coalition, even before today, don’t know what to do,” al-Nahyan said. “They are not speaking with one voice, and don’t know what their idea is.”

While Saudi Arabia is leading a Saudi-led military operation against rebel fighters in Yemen, Assad has said Riyadh is unlikely to act similarly in Syria.

“Saudi Arabia has other issues” besides Syria, he said. “We don’t see them.”

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