Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad refused to criticize President Donald Trump’s executive order limiting refugee flows from Syria during an interview this week, stating that it was “not against the Syrian people,” but only “terrorists.”
Assad has historically used the word “terrorist” to refer to anyone who opposes his rule over Syria and has accused the United States of supporting terrorism. Syria is a U.S.-designated State Sponsor of Terrorism.
Speaking to Europe 1 radio and TF1 television, Assad said that he did not see the executive order as being “against the Syrian people” because “it’s against the terrorists that would infiltrate some of the immigrants to the West. And that happened.” He signaled Germany out as a nation particularly hurt by Islamic State terrorists disguised as refugees
This is not the first time he has accused those who are attempting to flee the six-year-old Syrian civil war of working for terrorist organizations. Earlier this month, Assad told Yahoo News that some refugees were “definitely” aligned with terrorist groups and that the executive order “is an American issue” on which he would rather not comment. “Those terrorists in Syria, holding the machine gun or killing people, they [appear as] peaceful refugees in Europe or in the West,” he claimed. “You can find it on the ‘Net.'”
Assad treads lightly in commenting on the nascent Trump administration. Shortly following the November 2016 election, Assad said he felt Trump was “promising” as a new leader, “but can he deliver?” “We don’t have a lot of expectations because the American administration is not only about the President,” he added, “it’s about different powers within this administration, the different lobbies that they are going to influence any President.”
Assad appears to be working to elevate his international profile in light of multiple NGO reports accusing him of human rights atrocities during the civil war, as well as moves by the Trump White House to strengthen ties to Turkey, whose government has demanded for years that Assad step down. In addition to the two interviews mentioned above, the Syrian government news agency SANA published remarks by the head of state Thursday in which he encouraged Islamic preachers to “understand the philosophy of life,” a remark upon which SANA does not elaborate.
The White House sent its first high-level envoy, CIA director Mike Pompeo, to Turkey last week to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials. Erdogan has repeatedly called for Assad to step down and called him a “terrorist,” while agreeing with Assad that the United States supports “terrorism.” During Pompeo’s visit, however, reports indicate that Turkey sought from the United States assurances it would enact a policy that would also benefit Assad: ceasing support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has long been among the most successful anti-Islamic State militias and a reliable American ally.
Whether Assad can find a way to coexist with Erdogan will not reduce pressure from international NGOs on his regime. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published reports this month accusing the Assad regime of extraordinary crimes against humanity.
Amnesty International accused the Assad regime of hanging over 13,000 people in secret torture prisons; Human Rights Watch accused Assad of using chemical weapons on civilians in Aleppo. Assad’s regime called the former report “fake news” and the latter “absolutely non-credible” and based on “terrorists’ media sources.”