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Assad Says He Wants No Part Of U.S. Campaign Against ISIS

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On the same day U.S. officials confirmed the death of Kayla Mueller while in ISIS captivity, Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is speaking out on the U.S. coalition strikes against ISIS. In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Assad said the U.S. has used back-channels to warn him before the U.S. strikes ISIS targets inside Syrian borders. The Syrian president spoke with BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. Assad said he wanted no part of the U.S. coalition against ISIS and accused the Obama administration of collaborating with anti-regime militants he calls terrorists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD: No, definitely we cannot. And we don't have the will and we don't want to for one simple reason - because we cannot be an alliance of a country who support the terrorism.

MARTIN: This is President Bashar al-Assad's second interview with the Western news outlet in the past few weeks. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now for more.

Deb, this is more of Assad than we have seen for some time. What stands out to you in this interview?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: A couple interesting details. One, he confirms that he is given U.S. intelligence on airstrikes from Iraq. It makes sense - U.S. airplanes are flying, they do not want the Syrian Air Force up in the air at the same time and they want the radar off. The detail that's getting a lot of attention - he denied the use of barrel bombs. And here's what he said to Jeremy Bowen of the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL-ASSAD: I know about the Army. They use bullets, missiles and bombs. I haven't heard of Army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots.

JEREMY BOWEN: Large barrels full of explosives and projectiles which are dropped from helicopters and explode with devastating effect. There's been a lot of testimony about these things.

AL-ASSAD: They're called bombs.

AMOS: It's kind of a flip answer. He talks about cook pots. He says that these reports are childish fantasies. He's contradicted by the overwhelming evidence - there's eyewitness accounts, videos. These barrel bombs are packed with explosives, dropped at high altitudes from helicopters and they're indiscriminate. That's why they've become so notorious in this war. He also said that his army doesn't kill civilians, but he changed that definition because he said all civilians move to government areas. So anybody who stays in a rebel area is considered a rebel - adults and children.

MARTIN: And Deb, as we mentioned, Assad talked about the U.S. coalition against ISIS and said he didn't want any part of it. But in the days following the first strikes, his government portrayed itself as a cooperating partner. So, is this a change?

AMOS: Yeah, he did kind of backtrack on that. They did try to portray themselves as being part of it. But now what he's saying is the U.S. supports terrorism because they support the moderate rebels. And he did something interesting. He quoted President Obama's remarks in an interview with The New York Times last August when Obama said that finding moderate forces in Syria was a fantasy.

MARTIN: Of course, this interview is happening as the war in Syria rages on. It is almost 5 years old. Can you remind us where the standoff is at this point?

AMOS: It's been a very hot war week - 50 regime airstrikes in rebel areas around Damascus, rebels launched more than 100 mortar attacks on the capital. This is still a lethal war. We have more than 200,000 dead.

MARTIN: Finally, Deb, what are Assad's motivations in all this? I mean, he's clearly doing these interviews with some kind of intention.

AMOS: Part of this is to go on Syrian television. He looks like a president. He is sitting down with Western reporters. This all gets played to his own supporters. He answers the charges that people are hearing - Syrians are hearing, in the Western media - but at the end it is about, I am a survivor.

MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos. If you'd like to see the full interview with President Bashar al-Assad, go to bbc.com/news.

Thanks so much, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.