Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad lashed out at Britain for “bullying” Syria and said his country could retaliate secretly for an alleged Israeli strike on a Syrian facility, in an interview published early Sunday morning.
Speaking to the UK’s Sunday Times last week in a rare interview, Assad accused London of being “naive, confused and unrealistic” by trying to lift a European Union arms embargo in order to funnel weapons to Syrian rebels.
“The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony,” he said. “How can we expect to ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarize the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?”
Assad spoke to the newspaper as his country’s civil war nears its two-year anniversary, with 70,000 reported killed and nearly a million displaced by the fighting. Looking calm, and speaking in English, the leader called for rebels to drop their weapons and engage in national dialogue, echoing a call from last month that may have signaled growing desperation by the besieged regime.
Speaking about a reported Israeli airstrike in January on Syrian soil, which had allegedly damaged a chemical weapons site, Assad vowed to hit back as he said his country always had, though he said it might not be an overt counterattack.
“We retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced,” he said.
Assad also denied that fighters from Iran and Hezbollah had been dispatched to help defend his regime, but refused to discuss reports that Damascus was looking to transfer its large chemical weapons stores to Hezbollah.
“We have never, and will never, discuss our armaments with anyone,” he said.
The interview was published hours after Iran and Syria’s foreign ministers issued a joint statement lambasting the US for pledging $60 million and nonlethal aid to opposition groups.
Assad told The Sunday Times that “the intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal.”
In their first official statements on the US decision, the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers accused Washington of having double standards and warned that assisting the rebels would only delay an end to the civil war.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, also set clear parameters for any future talks with the opposition, saying that whether Assad stays or goes will be decided in presidential elections scheduled for next year. Salehi went further to say Assad may run for another term.
“Assad is Syria’s legal president until the next elections. Individuals have the freedom to run as candidates. Until that time, Assad is Syria’s president,” Salehi said at a joint news conference in Tehran. Moallem said the Syrian people have the right to choose their leaders through the ballot box.