BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad warned in a television interview Wednesday that the war against his government risked spreading to neighboring Jordan and predicted that rebel fighters, whom he described as Islamic extremists, would later take their violence to the West.
Speaking on the pro-government Syrian channel Al Ikhbariya, Assad presented himself as a staunch patriot who was fending off meddling by the West. He appeared to be wooing Syrians wearied by the country’s bloodshed, disillusioned by all sides and desperate for Syria’s conflict to end.
Assad charged that the United States and Europe were supporting his Islamist opponents. He said the alleged support was cynical and would come back to haunt them. The United States and its European allies have given limited support to Syrian rebels, but have been wary of providing aid, especially arms, that could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.
“The West uses any element, even if it is against them elsewhere,” Assad said. “They fight Al Qaeda in Mali and they support it in Syria and in Libya, but the West doesn’t know — or perhaps it knows but is not now aware — that this terrorism will return to it and they will pay the price later in Europe and the United States.”
His warning was in line with previous public statements in which he described the armed opposition as terrorists and Islamic extremists.
Last week, Al Nusra Front, an Islamic extremist group active in Syria, pledged publicly its allegiance to Al Qaeda. The United States had branded Al Nusra Front a terrorist organization in December.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s two-year civil war.
Assad, who the day before announced reduced sentences for an estimated 7,000 Syrian prisoners, also said he served at the will of the people and hinted he would step down if Syrian citizens demanded. The rhetoric appeared aimed to answer his many critics who consider him the face of an authoritarian regime.
“If there is no popular support, then the position offers nothing,” he said of his presidency. “So what the official should fight for is the popular support and the popular approval. So I say that what the people decide in this matter is the basis for the president to stay or leave.”
Assad also repeated a warning to Jordan made by his government in recent weeks that it should not be supporting the opposition. Syria has alleged that Jordan is hosting training camps for rebels, with U.S. involvement.
Assad said his government had confronted the Jordanians and received denials that they were helping to train rebel fighters. But the Syrian president made it clear that he saw a series of victories on the battlefield by the opposition in the southern province of Dara, along the Jordanian border, as a direct result of Jordan’s tacit backing of fighters there.
He said he hoped that Jordanian officials realized “that the fire does not stop at our borders and everyone knows that Jordan is exposed to it as is Syria.”