By Rick Gladstone
April 13, 2017
Vilified by accusations of using a chemical bomb, Syria’s president intensified his counterpropaganda campaign on Thursday, suggesting that child actors had staged death scenes to malign him and that American warplanes had bombed a terrorist warehouse full of poison gases, killing hundreds of people.
In his first interview since an April 4 attack on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed over 80 people, sickened hundreds and outraged the world, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria not only repeated the government’s denials of responsibility but contended without evidence that the episode had been fabricated as a pretext for an American retaliatory missile strike.
“We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun,” Mr. Assad told Agence France-Presse in the television interview from Damascus, which was recorded on Wednesday. “Were they dead at all?”
The decision by the increasingly isolated Syrian president to give an interview to a Western news organization appeared to reflect a calculation that his best option, even in the face of incriminating evidence, was to repeatedly deny responsibility for the attack, one of the worst in the six-year-old Syrian war.
Medical examiners in Turkey, where many of the Khan Sheikhoun victims were taken, have said that autopsies showed they had been attacked with sarin, a lethal nerve agent and a banned chemical weapon that Syria had claimed to have eradicated.
In a further sign that sarin was used, the British delegation to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the global group that polices adherence to a treaty banning such munitions, said samples taken from the attack had tested positive for sarin, Reuters reported.
The organization said in a statement that its executive council was meeting to discuss the Khan Sheikhoun allegations, that its technical experts had determined the allegations were credible and that it had collected samples to be tested for analysis.
The interview with Mr. Assad was broadcast as the Syrian government’s news agency asserted without evidence that American warplanes had bombed what it called a chemical weapons cache possessed by Islamic State militants in Syria on Wednesday, leaving hundreds dead, including “a large number of civilians, due to suffocation caused by the inhalation of toxic materials.”
The news agency’s report showed no visual proof of an attack but said it had taken place in the village of Hatla in Deir al-Zour Province, causing a “white cloud that soon turned into yellow as a result of the explosion of a huge depot that includes a large amount of toxic materials.”
The description appeared intended to corroborate the Syrian government’s claims that all chemical weapons attacks in the war have been carried out by militant extremists.
The Holes in Russia’s Account of the Syria Chemical Attack
The available evidence contradicts much of what the Russian government has said about a toxic attack that killed more than 100 people.
A spokesman for the American military coalition that operates bombing missions against the Islamic State in Syria denied the report. In a Twitter post, the spokesman, Col. John L. Dorrian of the Air Force, wrote: “Not true! Intentional misinformation...again!”
Mr. Assad, who has been widely denounced for documented atrocities committed by his military during the civil war, said of the reports about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, “Definitely, 100 percent for us, it’s fabrication.”
President Trump, who has called Mr. Assad an “animal” because of the chemical weapons attack, ordered a missile strike on Al Shayrat air base in Syria after viewing videos and photographs of the children killed in Khan Sheikhoun.
American officials have said that Syrian warplanes based at Al Shayrat carried out the chemical weapons assault and that Russia — Syria’s main ally — may have or should have known about it.
Mr. Assad’s escalation of his government’s denials came as tensions between Russia and the United States have worsened over the Syria war and Russia’s support for Mr. Assad.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who met on Wednesday in Moscow with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, said afterward that both sides had major differences and could not agree on basic facts concerning Syria and other major issues between the United States and Russia.
Mr. Putin has also rejected the American assertions that Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, calling them similar to the fallacious accusations by the United States that Saddam Hussein of Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in the prelude to the 2003 American invasion of that country.
The Russians used their veto power at the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday to block a Western-backed resolution condemning the Khan Sheikhoun attack and demanding cooperation from the Syrian government in determining who had been responsible.
Mr. Trump had said before the attack that he would not entangle the United States in the Syrian war and that his main goal was to eliminate the Islamic State’s redoubts in the country.
The missile response to the chemical attack, along with strikes by American warplanes that have caused increased collateral damage, have complicated the president’s position.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that an airstrike by the American-led coalition in Syria had mistakenly killed 18 Syrian fighters allied with the United States.
The strike, on Tuesday in Tabqah, Syria, was the third time in a month that American-led airstrikes may have killed civilians or allies.