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 US 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 UN envoys debated a draft resolution that would enshrine a joint US-Russian plan to secure and neutralise 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 Organisation 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 US 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, US President Barack Obama called for US-led punitive military strikes.
But with US 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 US threats of US 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."
Asked why he had used force to repress a popular uprising and triggered a two-and-a-half year war that has claimed 110,000 lives, Assad insisted Syria was a victim of terrorism.
"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... 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 is that... 80 to 90 percent of the underground terrorists are Al-Qaeda and their offshoots."
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground became still more complex and dangerous, when -- according to residents -- an Al-Qaeda front group overran a Syrian border town on Wednesday.
"The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has seized complete control of Azaz. They are in control of the town's entrances," said Abu Ahmad, an activist inside the town.
The fighting in Azaz began when ISIS fighters tried to kidnap a German doctor working there, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which also said he is now in a safe location.
"The situation in Azaz is unchanged (Thursday)," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
"There are attempts to mediate between the factions. Azaz is home to many people who fled (the nearby city of) Aleppo," he added.
"They want to live in a safe place, not one where anything that moves gets sniped."
Elsewhere, roadside bombs targeting a convoy of minibuses in the central province of Homs killed nine civilians on Thursday, Abdel Rahman said.
The blasts occurred on the road linking Homs city to a string of villages populated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, he added.
While Assad pursued his media counterattack, the five UN Security Council powers held new talks on a resolution backing the Russia-US plan to destroy the chemical weapons.
Western nations, which said they are not looking for an immediate threat of force against Assad, could seek a Security Council vote this weekend if Russia agrees.
UN envoys from the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China held two hours of talks at the US mission.
"There is no accord yet, there will be more negotiations," said one UN diplomat.
The disarmament plan will face its first big test on Saturday, the one-week deadline announced by Moscow and the United States for Assad to provide a list of his chemical facilities.
Assad said in his interview that he could provide a list "tomorrow", and Moscow said it had received assurances that he would cooperate.