Syrian President Bashar al-Assad again accused rebel fighters of using chemical weapons and said his government had handed over proof to Russia to present to the U.N. Security Council.
“In one word, we didn’t use any chemical weapons,” Assad said in an interview with Fox News that was conducted Tuesday and broadcast Wednesday. The sarin nerve agent that U.N. investigators have said was used in an Aug. 21 attack east of Damascus is called “kitchen gas,” Assad said. “You know why? Because anyone can make it in his house.”
Although he called for further U.N. investigation of last month’s attack and earlier incidents in which he said rebels had used poison gas, Assad confirmed that his government possesses chemical weapons and has agreed to surrender them to international control and destruction.
Assad said he thinks that it would take about one year to assemble and destroy the weapons and that it would cost about $1 billion. But he said the details were up to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based implementing agency for the international treaty on chemical weapons.
Syria’s agreement, he said, was not the result of President Obama’s threat to use military force but an independent decision in response to a proposal from Russia, Assad’s main military and diplomatic patron.
“The American threat wasn’t about handing over the chemical arsenal, it was about attacking so as not to use it again,” Assad said. “Syria has never obeyed any threat.”
The interview came as the United States and Russia, which agreed last week on a framework for dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal, disagreed on several aspects of the deal, including its enforcement.
Although the two sides proposed a Security Council resolution to enshrine the terms of the deal, they now appear at odds over whether they preapproved punishment for Syria if it does not comply.
Little progress was made Wednesday in closed-door U.N. meetings, at which the five permanent council members have been discussing a draft proposed by three of them — the United States, France and Britain — according to diplomats involved in the process.
Russia and China, which have united in the past to veto resolutions on Syria, have rejected any reference in the resolution to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, a provision that allows a wide range of enforcement actions, including the use of military force.
Rather than pre-suppose a Syrian compliance failure, Russia has argued, any discussion of punishment should take place only if and when such a failure occurs, according to diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the private discussions.
The framework agreement that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reached last weekend is ambiguous on the question, saying that “in the event of non-
compliance . . . the U.N. Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.”
Kerry said Tuesday that Syrian disarmament would happen “only with the United Nations passing a strong resolution. . . . It is important that the threat of force stay on the table in order to guarantee [Syrian] compliance,” he said. “So we will continue to press this issue.”
In the Fox interview, Assad indicated that a U.N. resolution was immaterial to Syria’s decision. “Whether they have Chapter 7 or don’t have, this is politics between the great countries,” he said. “We obey [the Chemical Weapons Convention] because we want to obey.”
Kerry and Lavrov said in the agreement that they “expect” Syria to turn over a complete listing of its chemical weapons by Saturday, a reference that the State Department said Wednesday referred to a “timeline,” rather than a “deadline.”
The Syrian list is to be turned over to the OPCW, which is then supposed to develop and approve a process to take control of the Syrian arsenal and, ultimately, destroy it.
Assad said the timing is up to the OPCW. “Time is not our problem. The problem is organization,” he said. “The only thing we have to do is to provide the information and make [chemical sites] accessible. . . . No problem. We could do it tomorrow.”
On related matters, Assad said the number of deaths in Syria’s ongoing civil war — more than 100,000 by U.N. estimates — has totaled about 30,000 to 40,000. He also said that up to 90 percent of rebel forces are backed by al-
Qaeda, compared with U.S. estimates of about 10 percent.
Asked whether he plans to be a candidate in Syrian elections scheduled for next year, Assad said he has made no decision.
Will Englund in Moscow contributed to this report.