BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has broken his silence over a deadly chemical weapons attack that killed scores of civilians, describing it as a “fabrication” to justify American military action.
In a combative interview published Thursday by Agence France-Presse, Assad dismissed photographs and video footage that moved President Trump to launch retaliatory strikes on a Syrian air base. He insisted that his government would never use banned weapons.
"Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand in glove with the terrorists,” Assad told the news agency. “They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack."
The comments were Assad’s fullest since the April 4 chemical assault on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun. According to victims, rescue workers and monitoring groups, it took place shortly after 6 a.m., killing more than 80 people and causing hundreds more to convulse, choke and foam at the mouth.
The attack, which U.S. officials believe took place with the knowledge of high-ranking Syrian government officials, prompted Trump to launch the U.S. military’s first direct assault on an Assad-linked target since Syria’s war began six years ago. The U.S. strike, accompanied by hardening American rhetoric on the Syrian president’s future, also dragged U.S. relations with his ally, Russia, to their lowest level since the Cold War.
But Assad said evidence collected at the scene came only from "a branch of al-Qaeda," referring to a former jihadist affiliate that is among the groups controlling Idlib province, where Khan Sheikhoun is located.
It was the Syrian government’s second version of events in the space of nine days. In earlier comments, officials attributed the deaths to a Syrian airstrike that hit a rebel factory where chemical weapons were being made, releasing the toxins.
"There was no order to make any attack. We don't have any chemical weapons. We gave up our arsenal a few years ago," Assad said. "Even if we have them, we wouldn't use them, and we have never used our chemical arsenal in our history."
The Syrian government was supposed to have given up its entire chemical weapons stockpile under the terms of a 2013 deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
"Frankly, that didn’t happen,” a Western diplomat said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Activists and monitoring groups have continued to record chemical weapons attacks on opposition-held areas. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syrian government warplanes have used chlorine gas on opposition-held territory on nine separate occasions this year.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has begun an investigation into the alleged attack, but Russia on Wednesday blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Syria cooperate with the probe.