Syrian President Bashar Assad has once again sought to absolve his regime of any wrongdoing by suggesting that reports of chemical weapons used in an April 4 attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun were “100 percent fabricated.” Assad made this denial on the same day that the world’s chemical weapons watchdog confirmed sarin gas had been used in the deadly attack on civilians.
Speaking to AFP in his first interview since the U.S. retaliated with 59 Tomahawk missiles on the al-Shayrat airfield on April 7, Assad claimed it was “not clear whether [the attack] happened or not, because how can you verify a video? You have a lot of fake videos now.”
He suggested that the only video verifying the attack — which killed more than 80 and injured hundreds more — came from “a branch of Al-Qaeda,” but human rights charity Amnesty International authenticated and analyzed more than 25 pieces of video footage shot in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack. “Some videos are of sufficient quality for experts to observe victims with pinpoint pupils, described as a classic symptom of nerve gas poisoning,” the group said.
One video shows nine children lying lifeless in the back of a pickup truck, having apparently died while in their beds. “No signs of trauma are visible on their corpses, which is consistent with chemical poisoning,” the Amnesty report stated.
On Thursday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that their scientists “have analyzed samples taken from Khan Sheikhoun. These have tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, or a sarin-like substance.” And Turkey, which received many of the wounded from the attack, said it has “concrete evidence” of the use of chemical weapons.
In the interview Assad also claimed Syria “gave up our arsenal three years ago. We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history.” Assad’s comments come just months after he and his brother were accused of using chemical weapons by a joint inquiry for the United Nations and the OPCW.
In 2014, the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons as punishment for a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,300 people in Damascus on 21 August 2013.
“It’s stage one, the play [they staged] that we saw on social network and TVs, then propaganda and then stage two, the military attack,” Assad said, insisting that reports of a chemical weapons attack were made up to facilitate a military response from the U.S.
U.S. “hand-in-glove” with terrorists
Russia, Assad’s most important military ally, has been very vocal in its support for the Syrian dictator since the attack, forcefully denying that the Syrian government was responsible. Instead, the Kremlin has rather dubiously alleged that Syrian government warplanes may have accidentally hit a rebel cache of chemical weapons, causing the deaths.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone so far as to suggest the chemical attack was carried out by rebel groups as a way of framing the Assad regime and drawing the U.S. deeper into the conflict. This was a narrative which Assad himself repeated in this interview in an attempt to counter pressure from multiple governments and organizations:
“Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists,” he said. “They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack.”
Assad said he would only allow an “impartial” investigation to take place into what happened in Khan Sheikhoun so it would not be used for “”politicised purposes.” On Wednesday Russia vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have forced Assad and his government to comply with an investigation into the attack.
A history of dubious denials
Assad’s complete denial of any wrongdoing is nothing new. In 2015 he denied using chemical weapons in Aleppo, despite being shown photographic evidence of chemical barrel bombs being dropped from helicopters.
In October 2016, Assad claimed that a photograph taken in Aleppo of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh in the aftermath of a airstrike from Syrian or Russian planes — and which became a symbol of the conflict in Syria — had been manipulated or forged. Assad’s refutation came a day after his own wife gave an interview in which she did not deny the veracity of the picture, saying: “These are all children, they are all innocent children, and they are all a loss to Syria irrespective of which side of the conflict we support.” Time also corroborated the image with Mahmoud Rslan, who took the photograph, along with a videographer and two medical workers who encountered the boy on the night in question.
In February, Assad dismissed an Amnesty International report that claimed that up to 13,000 people were executed at a military prison near Damascus. “You can forge anything these days,” Assad said. “We are living in a fake news era.” Amnesty said it conducted its research over the course of 12 months and spoke to sources with direct knowledge of what happened at Saydnaya prison.