Syria 'informed' about US-led strikes on IS: Assad

Sara Hussein
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A picture dated February 8, 2015, and released by the Syrian Arab News Agency on February 10, 2015 shows President Bashar al-Assad (R) giving an interview to the BBC's Jeremy Bowen in Damascus

A picture dated February 8, 2015, and released by the Syrian Arab News Agency on February 10, 2015 shows President Bashar al-Assad (R) giving an interview to the BBC's Jeremy Bowen in Damascus (AFP Photo/)

Beirut (AFP) - President Bashar al-Assad said Damascus was being informed about US-led air strikes against jihadists in Syria and that the raids could help his government if they were "more serious".

In an interview broadcast by the BBC on Tuesday, the Syrian leader also denied his forces were using so-called barrel bombs, crude unguided munitions blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond rejected any form of dialogue with Damascus and said Assad's denial of the use of barrel bombs showed he was either "deluded or lying".

A US-led coalition began carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in Syria on September 23, but it has pointedly refused to coordinate with Damascus.

Assad confirmed there was no cooperation with the coalition, members of which he accused of backing "terrorism" in an apparent reference to their support for other rebels fighting to overthrow him.

"There's no direct cooperation" with the coalition, which includes several Arab governments as well as Washington, Assad said.

"Sometimes, they convey a message, a general message.

"There is no dialogue. There's, let's say, information, but not dialogue."

Assad said communication was through third parties, including neighbouring Iraq, where Washington and Western allies are also carrying out strikes against IS.

"More than one party, Iraq and other countries. Sometimes they convey messages, general messages. But there's nothing tactical."

- Strikes not 'serious': Assad -

Damascus has grudgingly accepted the strikes on its territory, saying it was informed before they started, but has repeatedly criticised the coalition for failing to coordinate with it.

It says the raids cannot defeat IS unless the international community starts cooperating with Syrian troops.

Assad said the strikes had the potential to help his government, but that so far they were not sufficiently "serious" to do so.

"Yes, it will have some benefits, but if it was more serious and more effective and more efficient," Assad said.

"It's not that much."

Analysts have said the US-led strikes against IS have had the effect of freeing up Syria's government to focus on other rebel groups.

And opposition leaders have accused Washington of abandoning them by carrying out strikes against the jihadists but not against Assad.

Rights groups have accused Damascus of indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in rebel-held areas, including with barrel bombs -- crude munitions packed with explosives and shrapnel that are generally dropped by helicopter.

But Assad flatly denied his forces were using barrel bombs, describing such claims as a "childish story".

"I haven't heard of (the) army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots," he said, laughing.

"We have bombs, missiles and bullets," he added, dismissing claims his forces were using indiscriminate weapons.

"There are no indiscriminate weapons. When you shoot, you aim, and when you shoot, when you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians."

Assad also denied claims of using chemical weapons against his own people in August 2013, in an attack outside Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people.

"Who verified who threw that gas on who?" he said.

Asked if his government was responsible, he said "definitely not," adding the reported death toll was "exaggerated."

He also said his forces were "definitely not" using chlorine as a weapon.

- Assad 'deluded' -

Britain's top diplomat condemned Assad as "deluded".

"There can be no doubt that he is the problem, not part of the solution," Hammond said in a statement.

"The UK's position has not changed, we have no dialogue with Assad; there must be a political transition to a future in which Assad has no part."

Since Syria gave up its chemical arsenal in a Russian and US-brokered deal after the 2013 attack, there have been persistent reports of the use of chlorine gas.

In many of those instances, residents reported hearing helicopters, suggesting the involvement of government forces.

More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

Two rounds of UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland have failed to achieve progress, but envoy Staffan De Mistura was in Damascus for new talks on Tuesday.

He is expected to discuss his plan for a "freeze" of fighting in the northern city of Aleppo, where government troops have nearly encircled the rebel-held east.