The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was created in Iraq in 2006 “under the supervision of the Americans,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told French television in an interview broadcast on Monday.
With the civil war in its fifth year, Assad presented a customarily defiant face in the interview with France 2 TV, denying using chemical weapons or “barrel bombs” against his foes, denying that Iranian troops were fighting in support of his regime, and accusing the West and regional Arab states of supporting the infiltration of terrorists into Syria.
Asked whether he had helped ISIS to emerge in order to present himself as “a shield” against the terrorists, Assad bristled.
“ISIS was created in Iraq in 2006 under the supervision of the Americans,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the official SANA news agency. “I wasn’t controlling Iraq. The Americans controlled Iraq, and ISIS came from Iraq to Syria, because chaos is contagious.”
(The Syrian leader was alluding to ISIS’ origins: Jordanian Sunni militant Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi renamed his jihadist group al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 and then Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. With its expansion into Syria, the group’s name changed in 2013 to ISIS/ISIL, a move that sparked a split with al-Qaeda and its official Syria-based affiliate, the al-Nusra Front.)
“When there is chaos in Syria, ISIS came to Syria,” Assad said. “Before ISIS came al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda, and before that you had the Muslim Brotherhood. They all represent the same grassroots for ISIS to come later.”
Going back to the origins of the civil war in Syria – which began in March 2011 with citizens demanding more political freedom – Assad said that from the early weeks of the conflict “the terrorists infiltrated the situation in Syria with the support of Western countries and regional countries.”
He accused the French government and others of “supporting those jihadists that they called moderate opposition.”
“The people who are supported now, who have Western armaments, they became ISIS, they were supported by your state [France], and by other Western states,” he said.
Assad was scathing of the U.S.-led military coalition’s campaign of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, saying it was neither serious nor effective.
He said his own forces carry out ten times the number of missions against the terrorists than a coalition of 60 countries. “Is that serious?”
“And the other proof is that ISIS has expanded in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya, in the region in general. So, how can you say that it was effective? They’re not serious, that’s why they don’t make any help to anyone in this region.”
“The coalition against terrorism cannot be formed by countries who support the terrorists at the same time, so we don’t care whether they attack it in Syria, or Iraq, or both, as long as they support the same terrorists at the same time.”
Declared U.S. policy is to support, train and equip fighters affiliated with the mainstream Syrian National Coalition, to better enable them to fight the terrorists and defend themselves against the regime.
But jihadist groups of various stripes have also been among the most effective anti-Assad fighters, and some enjoy support from elements in Turkey and the Gulf states.
Assad reiterated his view that there is no “moderate” opposition to his rule.
“They said they’re going to arm the moderate opposition. Can you tell me what is it, where it is? We don’t see it.”
Assad also denied allegations by human rights groups and the U.S. and other governments that his forces have been using chlorine as a weapon and “barrel bombs” – explosives-packed barrels dropped from helicopters, often in populated civilian areas.
“I have never seen such a thing in our army,” he said of the barrel bomb allegation, adding that “in our army we only use regular bombs that could be aimed.”
The chlorine accusation, he said, was “another fake narrative by the Western governments.”
Firstly, the only operating chlorine factory in Syria was in rebel hands in the north of the country, he said, and secondly, “the regular armaments that we have are more influential than chlorine, so we don’t need it anyway.”
An Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons fact-finding mission has concluded with a “high degree of confidence” that chlorine has been used repeatedly and systematically as a weapon in Syria.
Citing those findings, the U.N. Security Council last month passed by a 14-0 vote (with Venezuela abstaining) a resolution condemning any such use, and saying individuals responsible must be held accountable.
Assad frequently rails against foreign interference in Syria, but when asked about the involvement of Iranian and Hezbollah forces fighting alongside his troops, he said there was “a big difference between intervention and invitation.”
“Every government in the world, every state, has the right to invite any other country or party or organization to help in any domain, while no country has the right to intervene without invitation. So, we invited Hezbollah.”
“We didn’t invite the Iranians,” he added. “They’re not here, they didn’t send any troops.”
The denial is at odds with frequent U.S. accusations about the presence in Syria of Iranian forces, especially troops from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
“Iran has been deeply involved with its forces on the ground in Syria,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Turkey last fall. “IRGC forces are on the ground.”
In 2011 the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two senior figures in the Qods Force – the IRGC unit responsible for clandestine and terror operations abroad – including its commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, for supporting the Assad regime’s repression.
Asked in the interview about calls from some quarters in the West for governments to open dialogue with his regime, Assad said the onus would be on those governments to stop supporting terrorists first.
“They have to convince me first, that they don’t support terrorists, that they are not involved in the blood shedding of the Syrian people first,” he said.
“How can we make dialogue with a regime that supports terrorists in our country, and what for? That’s the question. When they change their policy, we’ll be ready to make dialogue.”