BEIRUT — Syria’s president warned that Europe “will pay a price” if it delivers weapons to rebels fighting to topple him, saying in an interview published Monday that arming them would backfire as the “terrorists” return to their countries with extremist ideologies.
Bashar al-Assad also dismissed the U.S. administration’s findings that the Syrian army used chemical weapons in the civil war.
Assad’s comments were his first since last week’s decision by President Obama to authorize weapons and ammunition shipments to Syrian rebels, after confirming that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against them.
The European Union has also allowed a weapons embargo against Syria to expire, allowing members of the 27-nation bloc to arm the rebels. France and Britain are moving in that direction, but the German government opposes such a move.
Assad’s interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Runschau appeared aimed at reinforcing German skepticism.
“If the Europeans ship weapons, Europe’s backyard becomes a terrorists’ place, and Europe will pay a price for it,” Assad said in Arabic comments translated into German.
Chaos in Syria would result in “the direct export of terrorism to Europe,” he warned. “Terrorists will return to Europe with fighting experience and extremist ideologies.”
Assad also insisted that European efforts to distinguish between good and bad rebels when it comes to shipping weapons amounts to “differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban a few years ago, or a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ al-Qaida.”
The interview was conducted in a government building in Damascus last week. Following the U.S. decision on Friday, the president answered a few more questions via e-mail Sunday, the newspaper said.
Assad disputed the U.S. administration’s findings that at least 150 people have been killed in chemical weapons attacks in Syria, noting that Western countries have yet to unveil evidence to prove their claim.
Assad also denied that Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite milita Hezbollah is taking a prominent role supporting him, saying it had “only a few hundred men” in Syria.
This is about “individual fighters along the border,” he said.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, a Sunni movement, on Monday urged Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria and accused it of stoking sectarian tensions, in unprecedented public criticism against its former ally.
The Hamas statement came as the region’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims are lining up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war.