BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks broadcast Wednesday that Western support for “terrorism” in his country’s civil war is causing the refugee crisis in Europe.
In an interview with Russian media, the embattled leader warned that backing his multifaceted opposition — which he routinely lumps together as terrorists — would only drive more Syrians into European countries. He also warned the United States and foreign opponents that pressuring him to step down from power would fail.
The defiant remarks come as Russia increases support for Assad’s beleaguered military, which has lost substantial territory over the last year. Russia has been a crucial backer of the Syrian president during a four-year-old conflict that has killed 250,000 people and caused a refugee crisis in Europe.
“If you are worried about them, stop supporting terrorists,” said Assad, referring to Europe-bound Syrians. “This is the core of the whole issue of refugees.”
He described U.S. and European criticism of his policies as “propaganda” that will create “more refugees.”
Monitoring groups and analysts say that attacks by Syrian government forces are a primary cause of the refugee crisis. They say that such attacks — including air raids near Damascus last month that killed more than 100 people in a single day — are killing scores of civilians.
Assad’s remarks struck a far more confident tone than a speech he gave in July in which he acknowledged military defeats because of manpower problems in his military. Extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, have made sweeping advances. Assad now controls less than half the country’s territory.
In the interview, he did not mention Russia’s buildup in Syria but called Moscow an “impartial” player in the conflict.
In addition to military advisers and technicians, the Russians have sent tanks and heavy weapons to Syria. U.S. officials have expressed concern over the buildup, which they believe is intended to set up an airfield near the coastal city of Latakia. Russia already operates a naval facility there.
Assad said a solution to the conflict could not be found until “terrorism” is defeated. He called on Syrians to “unite” against terror, portraying his government as a bulwark against groups such as the Islamic State, which a U.S.-led coalition is fighting with airstrikes on its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
The coalition does not strike Syrian government assets. U.S. officials do not coordinate their strikes with Assad’s forces.
Russia and Iran reject calls demanding that Assad step down as part of a solution to the war. The United States has backed the Syrian leader’s moderate opponents and supports a diplomatic resolution that would include his removal from power.