Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he believes terrorists are among the nearly 5 million refugees who have fled his war-torn country in the last few years, according to the transcript of an exclusive interview released by Yahoo News on Friday.
The emboldened Syrian strongman rejected President Trump’s call to create safe zones for refugees and displaced Syrians, described recent reports of mass executions at his government’s military prisons as “fake news,” and said he would welcome U.S. troops into Syria — so long as they agreed to his terms.
The interview conducted by Yahoo News in Damascus was the first granted by Assad to U.S. media since Donald Trump became president. The Syrian leader said he has not had any contact — directly or indirectly — with the White House since Trump entered office. Trump’s travel ban — which has since been blocked by U.S. courts — prevents all Syrians from entering the U.S.
Throughout the interview Assad made numerous assertions that run counter to established facts, reports and studies provided by the United Nations, human rights organizations and other non-government monitoring groups:
– Assad repeated U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim that terrorists are hiding among the almost 5 million Syrian refugees that have fled the country since the civil war broke out nearly five years ago. But when asked for evidence to back up his claim, Assad simply said: “You can find it on the net.”
Fact check: What you can also find on the internet, of course, are reports from the United Nations refugee agency which state that Syrian refugees pose no risk to the U.S. or other countries.
– Assad said he would welcome U.S. troops into Syria with open arms, but only if they were willing to cooperate with his own troops and respected his country’s sovereignty. He also said that he welcomed Donald Trump’s vow to fight terrorists.
Fact check: The problem is that Assad’s government has a dubious relationship with ISIS and labels everyone who opposes him as a terrorist — including U.S.-backed so-called moderate rebels. He’s used this broad label as an excuse not to enter peace talks with certain rebel groups, a decision that likely cost thousands of lives.
– Assad dismissed an Amnesty International report published earlier this week which claims 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.”
Fact check: Amnesty says it conducted its research over the course of 12 months and spoke to a sources with direct knowledge of what happened at Saydnaya prison, including 31 detainees, four prison officials or guards, three former Syrian judges and 22 family members of people who were or still are detained there.
– Assad was also shown photographs that were smuggled out of Syria by a defector two years ago, which show the torture of Syrian political prisoners. The Syrian president dismissed them as “propaganda.”
Fact check: A report by the FBI published in July 2015 concluded that the images show no evidence of being manipulated and “appear to depict real people and events.”
There is one area where Assad’s viewpoint dovetails which that of most of the rest of the international community: Assad in his interview rejected the idea of setting up safe zones within Syria for refugees and those displaced by the five year civil war. “It’s not a realistic idea at all,” Assad said according to the transcript. “This is where you can have natural safe zones, which is our country. They don’t need safe zones at all.”
This is also the view of the UN, though for different reasons. The international organization’s refugee chief has said even trying to plan for safe zones is a waste of time. The one person who does want save zones established is Trump, though he has yet to give any details on how he sees them working beyond saying the Gulf States would be paying for them.