WASHINGTON — Syrian President Bashar Assad said a United Nations report finding “clear and convincing evidence” that sarin nerve gas was used in Syria painted an “unrealistic” account, and he denied his government orchestrated the attack.
In an interview with Fox News Channel conducted in the Syrian capital of Damascus and aired Wednesday, Assad said terrorists were to blame for the chemical attack, which the US says killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children. He said evidence that terrorist groups have used sarin gas has been turned over to Russia and that Russia, through one of its satellites, has evidence that the rockets in the Aug. 21 attack were launched from another area.
While the UN report did not lay blame, many experts interpreting the report said all indications were that the attack was conducted by Assad’s forces. US, Britain and France jumped on evidence in the report — especially the type of rockets, the composition of the sarin agent, and trajectory of the missiles — to declare that Assad’s government was responsible.
“The whole story doesn’t even hold together,” Assad said. “It’s not realistic. … We didn’t use any chemical weapons in Ghouta,” a Damascus suburb.
The interview was conducted Tuesday by former Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Fox News contributor, and Fox News Channel Senior Correspondent Greg Palkot.
Assad said his government would abide by an agreement reached with US and Russian officials to give up his chemical weapons. He says he has received estimates that destroying the stockpiles would cost $1 billion and would take roughly a year.
“We didn’t say that we are joining partially. … We joined fully. We sent the letter. We sent the document. And we are committed to the full requirement of this agreement.”
He said Syria was ready to talk to experts about the technical aspects of what he said would be a complicated task. He said Syria was ready to provide a list of weapons and provide experts access to the sites.
“We can do it tomorrow,” he said.
“It’s not about will,” Assad added. “It’s about technique.”
While he said the Aug. 21 attack was “despicable” and “a crime,” he argued that no one had verified the credibility of videos or pictures of the victims.
“You cannot build a report on videos,” he said. He later added: “There’s a lot of forgery on the Internet.”
He contended that opposition forces, which have been joined by extremist jihadists, could have gained access to sarin.
“Sarin gas is called kitchen gas,” he said. “You know why? Because anybody can make sarin in his house. Any rebel can make sarin. Second, we know that all the rebels are supported by governments. So any government that would have such chemical can hand it over.”
Assad said the balance of opposition forces has shifted during the more than two-year conflict, and he alleged that 80 to 90 percent were members of al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
“At the very beginning, the jihadists were the minority. At the end of 2012 and during this year, they became the majority with the flow of tens of thousands from additional countries,” he said adding that they were being financed by individuals who shared their extremist ideologies.
Assad said he had never talked with President Barack Obama. Asked if he wanted to, Assad said it would depend on the content of the conversation.
“It’s not a chat,” he said.
He said his message to Obama would be to “follow the common sense” of the American people.
Americans have been lukewarm about supporting any military strike on Syria for fear that the US would be embroiled in war.
A senior UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because some of this material was from private meetings, said: “It was 100 percent clear that the regime used chemical weapons.”
The diplomat cited five key details, including the scale of the attack, the quality of the sarin, the type of rockets, the warheads used and the rockets’ trajectory.
A Human Rights Watch report also said the presumed flight path of the rockets cited by the UN inspectors’ report led back to a Republican Guard base in Mount Qassioun.
“Connecting the dots provided by these numbers allows us to see for ourselves where the rockets were likely launched from and who was responsible,” said Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst for the New York-based group. But, he added, the evidence was “not conclusive.”
The HRW report matched what several experts concluded after reading the UN report. The UN inspectors were not instructed to assess which side was responsible for the attack.
“While the UN stuck within its mandate, it has provided enough data to provide an overwhelming case that this had to be government-sponsored,” said Anthony Cordesman, national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The inspectors described the rockets used to disperse the sarin as a variant of an M14 artillery rocket, with either an original or an improvised warhead, which the rebels are not known to have.
There is no conceivable way to prove the rebels could not have gotten them, Cordesman said, but he added that the modification of the rockets pointed to the regime.
The UN diplomat in New York pointed to citations in the UN report and a private briefing to the UN Security Council by chief inspector Ake Sellstrom that reveal the scale of the attack: The seven rockets examined had a total payload of about 350 liters (about 92 gallons) of sarin, including sophisticated stabilizing elements that match those known to be in the Syrian stockpile.
This makes it “virtually impossible” that it came from any source other than the Syrian government, the diplomat said, adding that there were likely other rockets used that the inspectors couldn’t get to.
The diplomat added that the trajectory points directly at known Syrian military bases. “There isn’t a shred of evidence in the other direction,” he said.