DAMASCUS (AFP) – President Bashar Al-Assad has said it will take at least a year and $1 billion for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons, as Al-Qaeda-linked fighters tightened their grip Thursday on a border town.
In a confident interview with U.S. network Fox News, Assad insisted Syria was not gripped by civil war but was the victim of infiltration by foreign-backed Al-Qaeda fighters.
His latest appearance came as U.N. envoys debated a draft resolution that would enshrine a joint U.S.-Russian plan to secure and neutralize his banned weapons in international law.
The plan is to be discussed at a meeting in The Hague on Friday by the world’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Assad insisted in the television interview that his forces had not been behind an August 21 gas attack on the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of civilians, but vowed nevertheless to hand over his deadly arsenal.
It was his second interview this month with U.S. television, and one of a series of meetings with Western journalists to counter mounting political pressure from Western capitals.
After last month’s barrage of sarin-loaded rockets, which the West says was clearly launched by the regime, U.S. President Barack Obama called for U.S.-led punitive military strikes.
But with U.S. lawmakers and the Western public not sold on the virtues of another Middle East military adventure, Assad’s ally Russia seized the opportunity to propose a diplomatic solution.
Pushed by President Vladimir Putin, the White House agreed to hold fire while Russia and the international community — with Assad’s agreement — draws up a disarmament plan.
Assad reiterated his pledge to cooperate, but insisted he had not been forced to do so by U.S. threats of U.S. action.
“I think it’s a very complicated operation, technically. And it needs a lot of money, about a billion,” he told Fox.
“So it depends, you have to ask the experts what they mean by quickly. It has a certain schedule. It needs a year, or maybe a little bit more.”