BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad praised Russian weaponry on Sunday as his government celebrated victory over rebels in the town where an alleged chemical attack took place, triggering U.S. airstrikes over the weekend.
Assad made the comments during a meeting in Damascus with Russian lawmakers, who later told reporters that he was in a “good mood,” according to Russian news reports. Footage of the meeting broadcast by state television showed an animated Assad smiling and laughing as he met with the Russians.
“President Assad was in absolutely positive spirits. He is in a good mood,” the Interfax news agency quoted Natalya Komarova, governor of Russia’s autonomous Khanty-Mansiysk district, as saying.
The meeting came a day after U.S.-led strikes, launched together with Britain and France, hit three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. The airstrikes were in response to the suspected April 7 chemical attack in Douma, a Damascus suburb.
Despite claims by President Trump that the operation was an “enormous success,” it is being interpreted in Syria as a win for Assad because the limited scope of the strikes suggested that Western powers do not intend to challenge his rule.
The extent to which the volleys of cruise missiles set back Assad’s chemical weapons program is also in doubt, because the Pentagon acknowledged that the strikes had not targeted all of the facilities involved in the development and production of such weapons.
In the meeting with the Russians, Assad said that the strikes had demonstrated that Russian weapons were superior to U.S. ones, according to the lawmakers. Russia claims that 71 of 103 missiles fired were shot down, although the Pentagon says that is not true.
“Yesterday we saw the American aggression, and we were able to counter it with Soviet missiles manufactured in the 1970s,” Russian lawmaker Dmitry Sablin quoted Assad as saying, according to Russian news agencies.
“The American movies have shown since the 1990s that Russian-made weapons are ‘backward.’ However, today we can see who is really lagging behind,” Assad said, according to Sablin.
The Syrian president’s high spirits were matched by displays of jubilation in Damascus, where government supporters took to the streets on Saturday to demonstrate their backing for Assad and express scorn for the strikes.
On Sunday, the Syrian army command declared that it had taken full control of the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, which had been under rebel control for six years.
The biggest town in Eastern Ghouta, Douma, is where suspected poison gas was dropped on civilians during fighting on April 7, killing about 40 men, women and children. As the justification for Saturday’s strikes, the United States and its allies cited what they said was “proof” that the Syrian government had carried out the attack.
The rebels in the town surrendered the day after the alleged chemical attack, and Russian troops have since been overseeing an evacuation deal under which rebels and anti-government activists were bused to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.
Eastern Ghouta “is now completely clear of terrorism after all terrorists have been removed,” an army command statement said. State television showed footage of police deploying in the town on Sunday, waving victory signs and Syrian flags.
Anton Troianovski in Moscow and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.