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Syria’s Assad Sends Signals to Trump in Interview


Residents walked through the destruction in eastern Aleppo last month, after it was brought back under the control of government forces.

Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria suggested in an interview published Friday that he could foresee cooperation with the Trump administration and might even countenance the deployment of American soldiers in the country one day.

The remarks by Mr. Assad appeared to signal that he might be more amenable to dealing with Mr. Trump than he was with President Barack Obama, whose administration repeatedly called on the Syrian leader to step down, accused his government of repeated atrocities and supported rebels seeking to topple him.

“We don’t have any contact with the Americans,” Mr. Assad said. “We’re not in that position.”

Mr. Assad not only held himself blameless for the conflict but expressed confidence that the millions of refugees who had fled would eventually come home. He also asserted that some had already returned and that life in Damascus, the capital, was safe and “nearly normal.”

The 34-minute interview in Mr. Assad’s presidential offices, conducted by Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, was the Syrian leader’s first with an American news organization since the inauguration of President Trump three weeks ago.

Mr. Assad, who has been ostracized by many governments and rights groups over monstrous abuses in the six-year-old war, including chlorine-bomb attacks and other brutalities against civilians and suspected opponents, rejected all such accusations as lies and propaganda.

Asked about a detailed Amnesty International report issued this week saying that a Syrian prison had systematically hanged up to 13,000 suspects without trial during the war, he dismissed it as politically biased and unverified.


President Bashar al-Assad of Syria during an interview with Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News.

Syrian Arab News Agency

“We’re living in a fake-news era, as you know,” Mr. Assad said.

Nonetheless, Mr. Assad said he had not visited the prison.

Amnesty issued a statement in response to the interview demanding that Mr. Assad allow outside inspectors into Syria “if he has nothing to hide.”

The interview was held against the backdrop of Mr. Assad’s increased confidence that he will prevail in the war, which began as a peaceful political uprising against his government during the Arab Spring era in March 2011.

His principal allies, Russia and Iran, have been helping pro-government forces reclaim territory from an array of rebel groups, most notably in the northern city of Aleppo in December. Turkey, which once staunchly opposed Mr. Assad, has been collaborating with Russia to advance diplomacy aimed at halting the war.

Mr. Trump has not specified precisely how he would alter the American approach to Syria under the Obama administration, which largely limited its military entanglement to aerial bombardments of Syrian territory held by the Islamic State extremists who have taken root in Syria and Iraq.

Mr. Trump has said he wants to work more closely with Russia in Syria to eradicate the Islamic State. There have been reports that such plans may include the deployment of American Special Forces.

Mr. Assad welcomed Mr. Trump’s declaration that fighting terrorism was his priority. “That’s our position in Syria,” he said, although he has always defined terrorists as any armed combatants who oppose him.

Asked about the idea of American troops fighting inside Syria, Mr. Assad did not dismiss it — provided his government approved. He also said the United States must lift longstanding economic sanctions against Syria, arguing they had contributed to the reasons for the refugee crisis.

Mr. Trump has also suggested the possibility of creating “safe zones” along the Turkish border for Syrian civilians — an idea that Mr. Assad rejected in the interview, calling it “not a realistic idea at all.”

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