Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed Western nations for the surge of refugees who have left his country and made their way to Europe, saying the West has supported “terrorism” since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.
The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 as peaceful protests before being met by a harsh crackdown and spiraling into a multi-party civil war, has forced half of Syrians from their homes.
But in an interview with Russian media, Assad rejected the view that government actions are responsible for people fleeing or that the crisis started as a peaceful uprising. He said those are part of propaganda by Western governments that, “are simultaneously sympathizing with the refugees while also causing them to be in danger in the first place.”
“So as long as they follow this propaganda, they will have more refugees,” Assad remarked. “So it’s not about Europe didn’t accept them or invite them as refugees, it’s about not dealing with the cause. Stop — if you are worried about them — stop supporting terrorists.”
Assad has long described any anti-government fighters are “terrorists.” The U.S. and some European nations have provided what they call moderate rebels with military equipment and training.
The conflict in Syria became more complicated with the emergence of the Islamic State group, which seized large areas in northern and eastern Syria, including it’s de facto capital in the city of Raqqa. Combating the group is the one area of consensus between Syria and a U.S.-led coalition of nations who have been carrying out airstrikes against the militants for the past year.
Both Syria and the U.S. have said they do not cooperate in their missions against the Islamic State. Assad said at one point there was indirect contact with Iraq as an intermediary, but no longer.
“For them maybe if they cooperate with the Syrian army this is like a recognition of our effectiveness in fighting ISIS. This is part of willful blindness of American administration, unfortunately,” he said.
But while renewing his criticism of the U.S.-led bombing campaign that has conducted more than 2,500 airstrikes, Assad said the militants continue to grab more Syrian territory.
“The reality is that despite the coalition having started its operation, Islamic State continues its expansion,” he said. “They cannot do anything. This coalition does not affect the situation on the ground.”
He called on the government, political sector and those who have fought against him to unite against terrorism, saying that is the only way to achieve a political solution in Syria.
“We can achieve consensus, but we cannot implement unless we defeat the terrorism in Syria. We have to defeat terrorism, not only ISIS,” Assad said.
He also reiterated that it is up to the Syrian people to choose their leadership and not “because of the judgment of the United States, the U.N. Security Council, the Geneva Conference or the Geneva Communique.”
Calls for resignation
U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, have said Assad should step down, while the 2012 Geneva Communique and the two rounds of unsuccessful peace talks that followed in 2014 included efforts to resolve the crisis with a political transition in Syria.
“If the people want him to stay, the president stays,” Assad said. “In the opposite case, he should swiftly step down.”
The fighting in Syria has killed an estimated 240,000 people in Syria and pushed more than 4 million people into neighboring countries and beyond. Inside of Syria, the U.N. says another 7.6 people are displaced while appeals for billions of dollars in aid this year to help all those affected by the fighting remain vastly underfunded.