SYRIA — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dismissed reports of last week’s chemical attack as “100% fabrication,” an assertion contradicted by numerous eyewitness accounts and independent analysis.
In an interview with the AFP news agency, conducted under restrictions imposed by the Syrian government at the presidential palace in Damascus, Assad claimed the reported details of what happened were not credible because their source was al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria, Nusra Front.
The entire incident was “fabricated” and “unconvincing,” he claimed.
In fact, reports of what happened came from eyewitnesses, victims and medical staff. The day after the attack on April 4, which killed 89 people and injured dozens more, CNN interviewed victims who had fled over the border to Turkey. They recounted the horrific aftermath of a gas attack, saying the town of Khan Sheikhoun was struck by regime warplanes.
Syria and its most powerful ally, Russia, have vehemently denied the accusations, saying that terrorist groups were behind the deaths.
But the UK Ministry of Defence and Turkish authorities say they have carried out tests on samples that provide evidence that Sarin or a similar substance was used. Experts have said that only the Syrian regime is likely to have the capability to produce Sarin, a volatile substance with a very short shelf life.
Assad interview restricted
The interview with AFP’s Damascus bureau chief took place on Wednesday. Severe restrictions were placed on the news agency: it was not allowed to film the interview itself; instead, the encounter was filmed by the Syrian presidency. Only footage of first five questions asked by the interviewer was provided to AFP.
Asked if he had ordered the chemical weapons attack, Assad said the Syrian military had no chemical weapons and that it would not use them if it did.
“We gave up our arsenal three years ago,” he said. “We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.”
He added that “morally” the Syrian government would never do this “because it’s not acceptable.”
In 2013, Syria was blamed for a chemical attack that hit the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, in which activists say 1,400 people died. UN weapons inspectors returned “overwhelming and indisputable” evidence of the use of nerve gas, although their mandate did not include assigning blame for the attack.
Shortly after, under pressure from the West, Syria agreed to a Russian proposal to give up control of its chemical weapons.
In his AFP interview, Assad accused the West, particularly the United States, of being “hand-in-glove with the terrorists” over the Khan Sheikhoun incident. He claimed details of the attack were made up in order to give the US an excuse to bomb a Syrian airbase in retaliation. “They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack,” he said.
Assad’s assertion that the attack never took place is a departure even from the explanation offered by Russia, which said the deaths were the result of a regime airstrike on a chemical weapons stockpile on the ground, controlled by “terrorists.”
Images of children foaming at the mouth shocked the world last week. Doctors at hospitals near the scene told CNN that victims had died of asphyxiation.
But Assad said it was possible to fake video and suggested the whole incident had been staged. “We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun, were they dead at all?” he said.
CNN and other international media interviewed victims of the attack who described how many of their relatives were killed. One man told how 25 members of his family had died, including his two young twins. He was pictured cradling their dead bodies.
Assad said no proper investigation had been possible because the area was controlled by Nusra Front.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is gathering evidence about the attack.
Russia, a close ally of Syria, on Wednesday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution which sought to condemn the killings and call on the Assad regime to cooperate with an international investigation into the attack.