The top rebel commander in Syria, General Salim Idris, in an exclusive interview with TIME on Tuesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “terrorist” and accused Syrian dictator Bashar Assad of an effort to “win some time … to deceive our American friends and the international community.”
Speaking via Skype, the Free Syrian Army leader warned that widespread violence in Syria would make it impossible for U.N. weapons inspectors to certify that Assad had given up all of his weapons, the goal of a Russian-backed proposal now under consideration in Washington and at the U.N. Idris said his forces would grant U.N. inspectors access to rebel-controlled areas if necessary, though he said he hoped such inspections wouldn’t occur as he considered them a Russian-backed diversion from strikes against the Assad regime.
Although Idris is battling Assad’s forces on the ground, his fury was mainly directed toward Assad’s patrons in Moscow. The Russians “are trying now to find a solution for the regime,” he said, warning that “it is very important … not to be deceived [by] the Russians. They are liars. President Putin is a terrorist. He is a liar. He is lying. He is killing the Syrian people with Russian[-supplied] air jets and Russian tanks. They are killing our people since two and a half years. We can’t trust them, and we can’t trust in Bashar and believe in President Putin. The two are criminals and liars. Excuse me, please, but this is the reality.”
Idris said Syrian rebels still live under constant threat of not just chemical weapons, but also SCUD missile and other heavy artillery. He renewed his longtime pleas, rejected by Washington, for antiaircraft weapons and a no-fly zone over Syria. And he reiterated his insistence that his forces do not possess chemical weapons.
Idris also raised a new issue, describing his concern about a Euphrates River dam that Assad’s forces apparently damaged in air strikes on Sept. 7.
The dam holds back Lake Assad and some 14 million cu. ft. of water. Idris warned that if the dam collapsed it would flood populated areas below. “The regime is trying to destroy the dam, and if they do that, there’s millions of cubic meters of water that would be very dangerous,” he said. “We are very worried that hundreds or thousands could be killed.” The dam is also a major supplier of electricity to the Damascus area.
An activist in nearby Raqqa, Ayham al-Hussein, confirmed the regime’s strikes to TIME. “The air strike was a little bit away from the dam, but people were afraid because they have noticed some cracks in the dam,” al-Hussein said. “The cracks are not serious, but we are afraid that the regime may repeat the strikes, then we will be seriously threatened in Raqqa … We think it was a message from the regime that they are ready to kill all of Raqqa if needed, especially after the advancements of the rebels.”
Idris said he asked the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, on Monday to warn the Obama Administration about the threat, adding that “this is more dangerous than the chemical-weapons attack.”
–With reporting by Aryn Baker and Rami Aysha in Beirut