WASHINGTON (AFP) - Bashar al-Assad insisted on Wednesday that Syria is not gripped by civil war but has been attacked by tens of thousands of foreign jihadist fighters allied to Al-Qaeda.
In an interview with US network Fox News, the Syrian leader urged US President Barack Obama not to threaten Syria but to "listen to the common sense of your people."
"What we have is not civil war. What we have is war. It's a new kind of war," he said, alleging that Islamist guerrillas from more than 80 countries had joined the fight.
"We know that we have tens of thousands of jihadists, but we are on the ground, we live in this country," he said, disputing an expert report that suggested 30,000 out of around 100,000 rebels were hardliners.
"What I can tell you that 80 - and some say it is 90 - to be precise, we don't have clear data and precise data, 80 to 90 per cent of the underground terrorists are Al-Qaeda and their offshoots." Assad admitted that at the start of the uprising there were non-jihadi Syrian rebels, but alleged that since the end of 2012, due to funding and influence from abroad, extremists had become a majority.
He added that "tens of thousands of Syrians" and 15,000 government troops had been killed "mainly because of the terrorist attacks, assassinations and suicide bombers." And he also repeated his insistence that an Aug 21 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus had been carried out by rebels, and not by government forces.
Western capitals, most Arab states and several independent rights watchdogs say there is clear evidence that the attack was launched by Syrian government troops.