BEIRUT — Syria’s president accused the West on Wednesday of backing al-Qaida in his country’s civil war, warning it will pay a price “in the heart” of Europe and the United States as the terror network becomes emboldened.
Bashar Assad also lashed out at Jordan for allowing “thousands” of fighters to enter Syria through its borders and warned that the “fire will not stop at Syria’s border.”
The rare TV interview with the government-run Al-Ikhbariya channel marking Syria’s independence day comes as the embattled president’s military is fighting to reverse rebel advances, with a rocket attack killing at least 12 people in a central village on Wednesday.
“Just as the West financed al-Qaida in Afghanistan in its beginnings, and later paid a heavy price, today it is supporting it in Syria, Libya and other places and will pay the price later in the heart of Europe and the United States,” Assad said.
He offered no evidence to back his charge that the U.S. was now backing the international terror group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Extremist groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining ground in Syria’s two-year civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, has emerged as the most effective force among the mosaic of rebel units fighting to topple Assad.
Last week, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Gonali pledged allegiance to al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Washington has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization over its links with al-Qaida. The Obama administration opposes directly arming Syrian opposition fighters, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists such as the Nusra Front.
Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a $60 million non-lethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized an upcoming meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul — which brings together Western and Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition — and said efforts to isolate Assad and to arm the opposition were strengthening Islamic militants.
“If the priority is peace, changes and democratic reforms, it’s necessary to force the warring parties to sit down for talks. If Assad’s departure is the priority, the cost of such geopolitical approach will be more casualties,” Lavrov said.
“If we allow those making the emphasis on (a) military solution to control the situation, those horrors … will multiply and the terrorists’ influence in the region will grow,” he added.
The Syrian conflict began with largely peaceful protests demanding reforms and eventually turned into an insurgency and war in response to a brutal military crackdown on the protesters. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.
In the hour-long interview, Assad also criticized Jordan, accusing it of allowing “thousands” of fighters to enter Syria across its borders.
His comments follow statements from U.S. and other Western and Arab officials that Jordan has been facilitating arms shipments and hosting training camps for Syrian rebels since last October.
“It’s hard to believe that thousands are entering Syria with their equipment (from Jordan) when Jordan is capable of stopping or arresting a single person carrying light arms for the resistance in Palestine,” Assad said.
Over the years, Syria has called Jordan a “puppet” of America because of its strong alliance with the United States. It’s also accused Jordan of being a “spy” for Israel, with which Jordan maintains cordial ties under a peace treaty signed in 1994.
Assad said that Syria has sent two envoys to Jordan in the past two months to warn Jordanian officials about the dangers of the flow of fighters into Syria. He said Jordanian officials denied the reports and that their statements were “not convincing.”
“We hope that Jordanian officials … will be more aware because the fire will not stop at our border and everyone knows that Jordan is as exposed as Syria,” Assad said.
On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that the Pentagon is sending about 200 soldiers from a U.S. Army headquarters unit to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria.
The 1st Armored Division troops will replace a similar number of U.S. forces that have been in Jordan for some months. They will include specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations. Sending a cohesive headquarters unit will enhance the troops’ ability to respond to any security needs.
“Currently, the U.S. forces assisting Jordan now are troops pulled from various units and places,” Hagel said.
In what has become a familiar refrain, Assad said the war on Syria was being waged by “mercenaries” and Islamic extremists but said Syria will be victorious.
“There is no other option, otherwise it will be the end of Syria,” he said. Assad added that what is happening now for Syrians is like a “vaccine which, if it doesn’t kill you, makes you immune.”
Assad’s military is currently fighting to reverse rebel advances that have left vast stretches of northern Syria in the hands of opposition fighters. The government is also eager to shore up supply lines to its forces stretched thin by the fighting.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rockets struck the central Syrian village of Eastern Buwaydah and that two children and three women were among the 12 killed. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said rebels and government forces also engaged in heavy fighting nearby.
Eastern Buwaydah is located between Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and the Lebanese border. The region is of strategic value to Assad’s regime because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria’s Alawites and also home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
Syria’s regime is dominated by the president’s minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — while the rebels are mostly from the country’s Sunni majority. Assad’s major allies, the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group and Iran, are both Shiite.
An amateur video posted online showed at least seven bodies, including a young girl with a bloody gash to her head, laid out on the floor of a room. A man can be seen wrapping the body of a boy in a white sheet as another man standing over them cries out, “Oh God, turn us victorious against Bashar. They killed innocent children.”
“Is this child carrying a gun? This child is 12 years old,” says the man, who appears to be the father of the dead boy. “Oh God. You gave him to me and now you are taking him.”
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, rebels were attacking government troops Wednesday as anti-Assad fighters tried to check recent regime advances around the military bases of Hamadiya and Wadi Deif near the city of Maaret al-Numan.
Government forces killed more than 20 fighters in an ambush in the area on Saturday, allowing them to break the rebel hold on the countryside around the bases and ferry supplies to forces in the camps. For weeks, the military had to drop supplies in by helicopter to the besieged troops.
“The rebels are trying to re-impose a siege on the camps,” Abdul-Rahman said. “They want to close the highway … to stop them from supporting Wadi Deif and Hamadiya.”
The fight for the two bases fits into the broader struggle for control of northern Syria. Most of the northern countryside is in the hands of anti-Assad fighters, while the regime is holding out in isolated military bases and most urban centers.