In first interview since Syria chemical attack, Assad says it was ‘fabrication’ to justify US strike

'You have a lot of fake videos now,' Bashar Al Assad says in an exclusive interview. 'We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all?'

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad is pictured on April 12, 2017 during an interview with Agence France-Presse in Damascus. Syrian Arab News Agency handout / EPA
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DAMASCUS // Syrian president Bashar Al Assad said a suspected chemical weapons attack was a “fabrication” to justify a US military strike, as Moscow digs in to defend its ally despite increasing strains with Washington.

In his first interview since the April 4 attack prompted a US airstrike on a Syrian airbase, Mr Al Assad said his army had given up all its chemical weapons and that Syrian military power was not affected by the US strike.

“Definitely, 100 per cent for us, it’s fabrication,” he said on Wednesday in reference to the alleged chemical weapons attack.

“Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack.”

Western leaders including president Donald Trump have accused Mr Al Assad of being behind last week’s attack in the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun, saying his forces unleashed a chemical weapon during an airstrike.

The attack killed at least 87 people, including many children, and images of the dead and of suffering victims sparked global outrage.

Syria denied any use of chemical weapons and Moscow said the deaths had been the result of a conventional strike hitting a rebel arms depot containing “toxic substances”.

Mr Al Assad insisted it was “not clear” whether an attack on Khan Sheikhoun had even happened.

“You have a lot of fake videos now,” he said. “We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all?”

He insisted several times that his forces had turned over all chemical weapons stockpiles in 2013, under a deal brokered by Russia to avoid threatened US military action.

“There was no order to make any attack, we don’t have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago,” Mr Al Assad insisted.

He said his forces had not been diminished by the US strike.

“Our firepower, our ability to attack the terrorists hasn’t been affected by this strike.”

Denouncing a “very barbaric” attack, Mr Trump ordered a strike that saw 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles slam into the airbase in central Syria from where Washington accused Mr Al Assad’s forces of launching the attack.

It was the first direct US military action against government forces since the start of Syria’s civil war six years ago and led to a quick downward spiral in ties between Washington and Moscow.

Russia accused the US of breaking international law with the strike against the Syrian regime, a key ally that Moscow has supported with airstrikes since 2015.

Mr Trump gave such criticism short shrift on Wednesday, saying: “I felt we had to do something about it. I have absolutely no doubt we did the right thing.”

Standing next to Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, Mr Trump also said it was “certainly possible” that Russia was aware of the suspected attack.

“I would like to think that they didn’t know, but certainly they could have. They were there. So we’ll find out,” he said.

The strains in ties were clear as US secretary of state Rex Tillerson received a frosty reception on a visit to Moscow on Wednesday.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship,” Mr Tillerson said after the meeting.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov agreed there were many problems, but stressed that Moscow was “open to dialogue with the US in all different areas”.

In a show of continued support for the regime, Moscow will host Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem for talks with Mr Lavrov on Thursday.

On Friday, the two will join a three-way meeting with foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, another key ally of the Assad regime.

* Agence France-Presse