Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday accused the West of supporting al-Qaida in a rare television appearance aired alongside pro-regime independence day programming.
“Just as the West financed al-Qaida in Afghanistan in its beginnings, and later paid a heavy price, today it is supporting it in Syria, Libya and other places and will pay the price later in the heart of Europe and the United States," Assad announced in a TV interview carried on the state-run Al-Ikhbariya channel, reported the Associated Press.
The president's warning came amid somber independence day activities in Syria, according to a Damascus account carried on NPR. The undisclosed writer described "a windy day with the skies threatening to rain and the booms of war occasionally echoing in the distance" on the 67th anniversary of the departure of French forces.
The booms of war began not long after the non-violent uprising against Assad in the spring of 2011, sparking a conflict that has taken at least 70,000 lives and contines to threaten survivors -- including those in Damascus.
"The residents of the capital have not yet taken up arms against the regime, or gone into the streets in mass protests," but NPR's Damascus-based account said many of them "seem to believe that change is inevitable."
Assad's threatening tone is also a bit of a change, coming a week after reports of links between al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria's rebel al-Nusra Front -- an Islamic militant group reportedly allied with forces attempting to unseat Assad. The embattled Syrian leader earlier indicated he would be open to talks with the opposition.
The United States has blacklisted al-Nusra but continues to offer support to the Syrian opposition.
Assad sought to discredit that support, saying now regime forces are "mainly facing extremist forces," reported Reuters.
The Syrian opposition is claimed by a variety of factions, ranging from staunch secularists to Islamic radicals, but they are united in the demand that Assad relinquish power.
Assad is decidedly uninterested in doing so -- he even hinted at a run for president in 2014, according to Agence-France Press.
"The position [of president] has no value without popular backing," Assad told viewers, apparently without irony. "The people's decision is what matters in the question of whether the president stays or goes."
Assad also singled out neighboring Jordan for special criticism -- a nation that has taken on the lion's share of the massive refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian conflict. Assad accused the Jordanian authorities of providing cover for "thousands" of anti-government fighters, said AP.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the violence, the majority of them taking refuge in neighboring countries. International efforts to end the crisis have not been successful. Damascenes are not surprised, many of them convinced that the conflict will take years to resolve according to the NPR account, using the following exchange by way of example:
"One couple I visited disagreed with each other on just this point. As we sat in their darkened living room, with dimmed lights to 'save on electricity' and closed windows 'so the guards outside can't hear us,' Safa, in her 50s, opened with a prediction:
'In my heart, I'm sure that Assad will leave,' she said. Her husband, 74, chuckled.
'Not in our lifetime,' he said.
'Yes, in our lifetime. You'll see. I'll remind you when it happens,' she said.
'Ha. Well, you'll have to come to my grave to remind me,' he said.