Assad: If West wants to help refugees, don't support rebels

Story highlights

  • Assad says ceasefire in Syria still holding despite claims of violations by both sides
  • The Syrian President tells Australian broadcaster the battle against ISIS is "not a race"

(CNN)Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has clung to power amid a brutal five-year war, has called on the West to cease supporting rebel fighters if it wants to stop the flow of refugees, and engage with the government in peace talks.

In a rare interview with Australian public broadcaster SBS, Assad spoke about the fractious Syrian ceasefire, described British Brexit leaders as "disconnected from reality" and said he welcomed intervention against ISIS in Syria, as long as it wasn't "window dressing."
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on February 11, 2016.
    At least a quarter of a million people have been killed since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, while almost 5 million Syrians have fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
    A ceasefire was agreed to by all sides in February, with the help of Russia and the United States, although in recent weeks both the government and the rebels have been accused of breaking the truce.
    In the interview, Assad said the Syrian refugees wanted to come home and, rather than humanitarian action, the best and "less costly" way for the West to help them was to destroy the rebels.
    "Help them go back by helping the stability in Syria, not to give any umbrella or support to the terrorists," he said. "That's what (the refugees) want... Most of them, they didn't leave because they are against the government or with the government; they left because it's very difficult to live in Syria these days."
    Saying he was a "very emotional" person, Assad told the journalist he hoped the refugees would come back to Syria one day. "Losing people as refugees is like losing human resources. How can you build a country without human resources?"

    Accused dictator

    Western leaders have accused Assad of being a brutal dictator presiding over the violent fragmentation of his country -- one who has used barrel bombing and other barbaric tactics that have caused the death and exodus of thousands.
    Assad said reports of government-sanctioned mass torture and killing were "not credible."

    Ceasefire "still working" despite fighting

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    Russian and Syrian fighters have continued airstrikes against U.S.-backed rebel forces within the country, despite the ceasefire, but Assad said that was within the government's rights under the agreement.
    He claimed the ceasefire was still functioning in "most areas."
    "It's still working, the ceasefire, but we don't have to forget that terrorist groups violate this agreement, on a daily basis. But at the same time, we have the right, according to that agreement, to retaliate whenever the terrorists attack our government forces," he told SBS.
    In April, an airstrike on a pediatric hospital killed 50 people including doctors and nurses, according to rights groups.
    Assad denied claims Syrian fighters were deliberately targeting hospitals. "Anyway, if you attack hospitals, you can use any building to be a hospital. No, these are an anecdotal claims, mendacious statements," he said.
    When asked how he responded to Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten calling him a butcher, Assad said the statement was "disconnected from reality."
    "I'm fighting terrorists, our army is fighting terrorists, our government is fighting terrorists... if you call fighting terrorism butchery, that's another issue."

    Assad praises Russia in ISIS fight

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    Discussing the ongoing battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Assad said the fight wasn't "a race."
    "The danger of those terrorist groups is not about what land do they occupy, because it's not a traditional war. It's about how much of their ideology they can instill in the mind of the people in the area that they sit or live in," he said.
    "So reaching Raqqa is not that difficult militarily, let's say. It's a matter of time. We are going in that direction."
    In the past month, Syrian troops backed by Russia pushed into the territory surrounding Raqqa, which is currently occupied by ISIS, for the first time since 2014. The U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces have also moved in on the terror group's de facto base from the north.
    Across the border in Iraq, Falluja was finally declared fully recaptured by Iraqi government forces on June 26, after a month-long battle in the city.
    Assad said he welcomed any intervention against ISIS in Syria, but said it had to be "genuine, not window dressing." "When the Russian air support started, only at that time (did) ISIS stop expanding," he said.

    No preference for Trump or Clinton

    In addition to discussing the war in Syria, Assad spoke guardedly about the upcoming U.S. general election and the UK's decision to leave the European Union.
    Despite saying he didn't want to elaborate on the Brexit decision, Assad called British leaders "second-tier politicians" and appeared to take pleasure in the chaos.
    "Those officials who used to give me the advice about how to deal with the crisis in Syria, and say 'Assad must go' and 'He's disconnected' (have been) proven to be disconnected from reality, otherwise they wouldn't have asked for this referendum," he said.
    On the U.S. general election in November, Assad said he had no preference for either presumptive nominees Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
    "Usually what they say in the campaign is different from their practice after they become president, and Obama is an example... we have to wait and see what policy they're going to adopt, whoever wins the elections," he said.