Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is rejecting fresh accusations that his forces used chemical weapons, including chlorine, on civilians and others in the country's civil war.
Idlib province, Syria
Human Rights Watch this week said it has evidence that "strongly suggests" Damascus used toxic chemicals in several deadly barrel bomb attacks in Idlib province last month.
Western rights groups and governments have repeatedly accused the Assad government of using chemical weapons on civilians, a charge that is denied by Damascus.
In an interview published Friday, President Assad dismissed such accusations as "propaganda against Syria," saying it is designed to "demonize" his government.
"This media propaganda doesn't reflect the reality in our region," Assad told the Sweden-based Expressen TV. "They didn't have a single evidence regarding this."
Human Rights Watch says it conducted inquiries into six attacks in Idlib in which Syrian government helicopters are suspected to have dropped canisters filled with chlorine.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is also carrying out a fact-finding mission on those attacks and others, but it does not have the mandate to assign blame.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard emotional testimony from a Syrian doctor who treated victims of a suspected chlorine attack in the village of Sarmin, near Idlib, where six people died.
The doctor, Mohamed Tennari, described smelling "bleach-like" odors on the victims and said he heard the sound of helicopters overhead.
"If there was a dry eye in the house, I didn't see it," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters after the closed-door meeting.
Power said the diplomats became emotional when they watched video of children in the village choking and vomiting from chlorine gas as doctors struggled to treat them.
She said all the evidence suggests the chemical weapons came from helicopters and pointed out that the only force in the area that has such aircraft is the Syrian military.
"But we need to move forward in a manner that also makes it very clear to all council members... that those people responsible for those attacks are held accountable," she added.
President Assad's government has said it never has nor would it ever use chemical weapons on civilians. It instead blames such attacks on rebels.
The U.N. has said chemical weapons have been used in Syria without blaming either side.
In September 2013, after a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta killed hundreds of people, the Security Council adopted a resolution demanding Syria declare and dismantle its chemical weapons facilities and destroy its stockpiles.
Chlorine was not included as part of the chemical weapons to be dismantled, since it also has civilian uses.
Turkish support for rebels
Assad said Turkish military and logistical support was the main factor that helped insurgents to seize the northwestern city of Idlib from government control last month.
Idlib, a short drive from the Turkish border, is only the second provincial capital to fall to insurgents in the four-year-long civil war. It was captured by an alliance of Islamist groups including al-Qaida's Syrian arm, the Nusra Front.
“Any war weakens any army, not matter how strong, no matter how modern,” said Assad.
In the fall of Idlib, “the main factor was the huge support that came through Turkey; logistic support, and military support, and of course financial support that came through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic, asked to comment by Reuters, said: “Claims that armed forces coming from Turkey have participated in the Idlib offensive do not reflect the truth. This is out of the question. These are baseless allegations originated by the Syrian regime which should not be taken seriously.”
The Syrian conflict is estimated to have killed around 220,000 people. Assad has lost control over much of the north and east while trying to shore up his control over the main population centers in the west, with the help of allies including Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Starting next month, the U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is planning to consult Syrian protagonists and interested states on a new round of peace talks. These have consistently failed to make progress since the war erupted.
Asked about the initiative, Assad said the Syrian crisis had been complicated by external intervention.
Referring to states that are hostile to him, including Turkey, he said de Mistura was aware that if “he couldn't convince these countries to stop supporting the terrorists and let the Syrians solve their problem, he will not succeed.”
The United States wants to see Assad gone from power and has shunned the idea of partnering with him against Islamic State, which has taken over large parts of Syria. In a series of interviews with Western media, he has repeatedly pressed his case that the jihadist groups in Syria pose a threat to Western states.
“Syria is a fault line,” Assad said. “When you mess with this fault line you will have the echoes and repercussions in different areas, not only in our area, even in Europe.”
Some material for this report came from Reuters.