DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News, rejected President Trump’s idea to create “safe zones” inside Syria as “not a realistic idea at all.” He said he could see a role for American troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria, but only with his government’s approval and as part of a “rapprochement” with Russia.
“So, if you want to start genuinely as United States to [defeat the Islamic State] it must be through the Syrian government,” said Assad, when asked about reports that Trump has directed the Pentagon to develop new plans to destroy the Islamic State that could include the deployment of more U.S. special forces troops and Apache helicopters inside Syria.
“We are here, we are the Syrians. We own this country as Syrians, nobody else,” he added. “So, you cannot defeat the terrorism without cooperation with the people and the government of any country.”
Assad’s comments during a 34-minute interview reflected his increasingly emboldened stance since Russian airstrikes helped drive rebels from eastern Aleppo, turning the tide in the country’s six-year-old civil war. He acknowledged regularly consulting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and demanded that the U.S. lift economic sanctions against Syria as a first step to working with his military and Moscow to defeat terrorists.
The interview turned contentious when Assad was questioned repeatedly about new allegations of torture and other human rights abuses by his government — allegations he dismissed as “lies” and part of a campaign by Amnesty International, the Persian Gulf states and even the U.S. FBI to “demonize the Syrian government.”
The interview in Assad’s office was his first since President Trump took office. While he said he found Trump’s public statements about fighting terrorism “promising,” he was dismissive of the U.S. president’s recent assertion that he would “absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people” endangered by the country’s fierce civil war.
“But actually, it won’t [protect civilians], it won’t,” Assad said. “Safe zones for the Syrians could only happen when you have stability and security, where you don’t have terrorists, where you don’t have [the] flow and support of those terrorists by the neighboring countries or by Western countries. This is where you can have a natural safe zone, which is our country. They don’t need safe zones at all. It’s not a realistic idea at all.”
Assad was pressed on his opposition to safe zones, considering that nearly half the population of Syria has been displaced by the war.
“The first thing you have to ask: why were they displaced?” Assad replied. “If you don’t answer that question, you cannot answer the rest. They were displaced for two reasons: first of all, the terrorist acts and the support from the outside. Second, the [U.S.] embargo on Syria. Many people didn’t only leave Syria because of the security issues. As you can see, Damascus is safe today, it’s nearly normal life, not completely.
“But they don’t find a way for life in Syria, so they have to travel abroad in order to find their living. So, if you lift the embargo, and if you stop supporting the terrorists … I’m talking about everyone who supported terrorists, including the United States during Obama’s administration. If you stop all these acts, most of those people will go back to their country.”
As with all interviews granted by President Bashar Assad, this interview was filmed by his presidential press office. No editorial changes were made to the content.
Read more from the Yahoo News Exclusive interview with Syrian President Assad:
Exclusive: Syria’s president said he would ‘welcome’ American troops into his country to fight ISIS
Exclusive: Assad is confronted with photos of his torture victims
Exclusive: Assad of Syria says he would step down ‘if there is public consensus’