A combative Syrian President Bashad has dismissed talk that the United States may be softening its insistence that he step down from office as it grows more concerned about the growth of radical Islamists.
In an interview with BBC News broadcast Tuesday, Assad accused the U.S. of fomenting terrorism through its support of "moderate" groups seeking to overthrow him, and defiantly insisted that he would not bend to American demands.
“Whatever they say, [that] doesn’t mean for us to be puppets,” the Syrian president said. “We’ll never be puppets who work against our interests for their interests.”
As the destructive Syrian conflict grinds on toward its fifth year, with no end in sight, some see signs that the long-embattled Syrian leader is in a more secure space, confident that he will not be toppled.
And Assad is giving no public sign of being conciliatory toward Washington and its regional allies backing the revolt against him.
With Syria’s chaos spreading beyond its borders, U.S.-led efforts have shifted from taking down Assad to destroying Islamic State, the most powerful of a number of radical groups that arose from the tumult in Syria. A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in northern Syria since September.
Some have suggested that Assad and his secular government must be part of any transitional administration that emerges as part of an eventual political settlement of the Syrian crisis.
But Assad — whose forces are also fighting Islamic State, along with other Islamist armed factions — didn’t retreat from his long-stated view that it is the United States and its allies that have fostered terrorism, leading directly to the creation of Islamic State.
“We’re not against cooperation with any country, we’ll never be,” Assad, appearing relaxed and occasionally breaking into grins, told the BBC interviewer in English during the almost half-hour conversation at the presidential palace in Damascus. “We didn’t start this conflict with the others. They started, they supported terrorists, they gave them the umbrella. It’s not about isolating Syria now; it’s about [an] embargo on the Syrian population.”
He dismissed U.S. plans to back a “moderate” opposition as a “pipe dream” and a “fantasy,” saying all of his armed opponents were Al Qaeda-style fanatics.
The Syrian president held out special scorn for Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, saying the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam had inspired the radicals.
“The source of this Islamic State ideology and other Al Qaeda-affiliated groups is the Wahhabis that are being supported by the royal family in Saudi Arabia,” Assad said.
The Syrian leader said there was no coordination between Syrian forces and the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, despite the fact that both are fighting the same enemy in the same country.
“They don’t talk to anyone unless he’s a puppet,” Assad said of U.S. officials. “So they don’t talk to us, and we don’t talk to them.”
However, the president did say messages were sometimes conveyed through third parties, including Iraq. “But there’s nothing tactical,” he said. “There’s, let’s say, information. But not dialogue.”
At any rate, he downplayed the effect of the U.S.-led air campaign, which now totals more than 2,000 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
“It’s not that much,” Assad said, criticizing the campaign as relatively ineffective.
Still, he said his country would not join the U.S.-led coalition, even if asked — an unlikely scenario.
“We cannot be [in] alliance with the country who support[s] the terrorism," Assad said.
He again rejected the notion that the protests that broke out in 2011 — igniting the revolt against his rule — were largely peaceful, labeling the uprising as violent from the outset.
“During the first few weeks, many policemen were killed,” said Assad, who conceded that a minority of the protesters may have sought democracy.
As he has done consistently, Assad dismissed allegations that the Syrian military indiscriminately bombs and shells civilian areas and seemed to mock the notion that Syrian combat aircraft drop "barrel bombs," metal cylinders filled with high explosives. Human rights activists and others have documented Syrian use of barrel bombs in civilian areas and condemned the practice.
“This is a childish story they keeping repeating in the West,” Assad said. “It’s like talking about cooking pots. So we don’t have cooking pots. ... We have bombs, we have missiles, we have bullets.”
Wael Aleji, a member of exiled Syrian opposition, told the BBC that Assad was “in complete denial,” adding, “He is systematic liar. I am pretty sure he is a psychopath.”
The Syrian conflict has resulted in more than 200,000 deaths, forced millions from their homes, destroyed scores of towns and neighborhoods and left vast swaths of the nation in the hands of Islamic State and other radical factions. All diplomatic efforts to end the war have failed.
Follow @mdcneville for news from Iraq and Syria