UK's foreign minister calls Assad interview 'delusional'

William Hague shrugs off comments from Syria's president who said Britain and the US were supporting terrorists by supplying opposition fighters. Omar Karmi reports from London

Bashar Al Assad said in an interview that international "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian opposition amounted to "very lethal" support for "terrorists". AFP
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LONDON // The UK yesterday dismissed as "delusional" remarks by Syria's president that Britain and the US are supporting terrorists by sending supplies direct to opposition fighters.

In an interview with a British newspaper, Bashar Al Assad also expressed anger at Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries openly supporting Syrian opposition factions.

On the battlefield yesterday, opposition fighters said they captured large parts of a police academy near Aleppo. A video recoreded by one of the Free Syrian Army factions, led by a Sheikh Tawfiq, purported to show opposition fighters entering the Khan Al Assal police training complex, after what the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said was a days-long battle that killed 200 fighters on both sides.

Thirty-four government soldiers were killed in fighting yesterday alone, according to the group whose report has not been independently verified, contradicting a Syrian government account on Saturday that the Syrian army had regained control over a road linking the city of Hama to Aleppo in the north.

The report came as Britain's foreign secretary dismissed remarks by Mr Al Assad that Britain was a "bully" and international support for the Syrian opposition amounted to assistance to terrorist groups.

Describing the Syrian leader as the man "presiding over this slaughter", William Hague, told a BBC Sunday morning show that an interview with Mr Al Assad in The Sunday Times would "go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times."

"We have to do what we can to save lives - lives that [Mr Al Assad] is bringing to a terrible end … He has now had two years to sit down in real dialogue and has refused every opportunity to do so," Mr Hague said.

Mr Al Assad told The Sunday Times that international "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian opposition - intelligence, financing and communication equipment - amounted to "very lethal" support for "terrorists" and described Syria as the "last bastion of secularism" in the region.

"We should be worrying about the majority of moderate Syrians who, if we do not fight this extremism, could become the minority - at which point Syria will cease to exist. If you worry about Syria, you have to worry about the Middle East, because we are the last bastion of secularism in the region. If you worry about the Middle East, the whole world should be worried about its stability."

The US and Britain should not be concerned with the leadership of Syria, he said, which was strictly an "internal matter". And he described British government rhetoric as "shallow and immature" in the tradition of Britain's history of "bullying and hegemony" in the region.

Mr Assad also had harsh criticism for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, countries that are openly supporting Syrian opposition factions. His exit from power would not end the fighting, Mr Al Assad said, as proven by precedents in Yemen, Libya and Egypt. Instead, anyone wanting to see peace return to Syria should "go to Saudi Arabia and Qatar and tell them: stop financing the terrorists in Syria".

According to the United Nations, more than 70,000 have been killed in a nearly two-year uprising that began with peaceful demonstrations against the government for greater reforms but soon descended into violence. Over 850,000 Syrians have sought refuge from the fighting in neighbouring countries, with the UN warning that that number could pass one million this month.

An estimated three million have been displaced internally.

Mr Al Assad did not deny that the situation in Syria was serious and one that Syrians would "grieve for many years to come". But he rejected the UN's numbers, which, he said had been "manipulated to pave the way for humanitarian intervention", which is really "military intervention".

Mr Al Assad also said he was willing to talk with elements of the opposition which he divided into "political entities" and "armed terrorists".

"We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists."

Yesterday the Syrian opposition leader, Moaz Alkhatib, visited rebel-held areas in northern Syria, in a trip intended to strengthen ties between the main opposition coalition and rebels inside the country, an aide said. Mr Alkhatib, who fled Syria last year after being jailed several times, entered northern Syria from Turkey and toured the towns of Jarablus and Minbij, the source said.

Britain, meanwhile, is set to announce an increase in its aid to the Syrian opposition this week. On Thursday, the US said it was stepping up its assistance to the Syrian opposition, nearly doubling the money it is spending to bolster opposition groups to US$60 million (Dh220m). Britain has been negotiating with the EU over amendments to its arms embargo on Syria before making a similar announcement.

Contrary to opposition hopes, however, the British foreign secretary told the BBC that there would not be an announcement of arms sales. Rather, he said, amendments to the EU's arms embargo would allow Britain to supply a "wider range" of non-lethal aid to the opposition.

"The risks of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great restraints," Mr Hague said. "And it is one of the reasons we don't do it now. But these things are a balance of risk … that's why I don't rule it out in the future."

* With additional reporting by Reuters