by Bill Holmes
Bashar al-Assad aired here on PBS. I watched the interview and here are my impressions.
Assad's title is President, but between him and his father they have ruled Syria for over 40 years. That sounds a bit like a dictatorship to me.
The interview took place Sunday morning (9/8) in Damascus in what I assume was a very secure government building. There were just the two men visible during interview. I have no idea how much editing was done either for length or order of the questions.
I give Charlie credit for trying but like most interviews with political leaders it is hard to get a straight answer. Assad was evasive but he did remain calm and there was no shouting from either participant. The whole interview was conducted in English so there were no delays between questions and answers and no distracting interpretations while you can still hear the interviewee talking in his native language in the background.
Assad made it clear from the start and several times thereafter that the issues are about the region and not just Syria. He also said several times that there would be repercussions if the US makes a military strike. Not necessarily directly from Syria but from other factions in the region. Those repercussions might include chemical weapons because other forces in the region have chemical capabilities.
He stated that he is against weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including chemical weapons. Despite his opposition to WMDs Syria has not signed any of the international treaties against them. His excuse is that Israel has those type of weapons. He neither confirms or denies that Syria has any chemical weapons. Reading between the lines, he certainly left the impression that they do. Whether that is true or just a bluff is unknown. The general consensus of the international community is that they do have chemical weapons. As we all know from Iraq the intelligence on the existence of WMDs is less than an exact science. Assad brought up the West's errors about WMDs prior to the Iraq invasion several times during the interview.
Assad said that Secretary of State John Kerry is stating his convictions and not evidence about Syria's use of chemical weapons. He again brought up Colin Powell's "evidence" of WMDs in Iraq. Allegations are not facts.
When pressed about the specific issue of August 21st he said that the Syrian government troops were gassed by the rebels and not the other way around. He doesn't admit that there is any evidence he has used chemical weapons and denied they have. He said it was illogical that he would use them while the UN investigators were in the country. He also stated that using WMDs would be a desperate measure by someone losing the conflict. He maintains that the government forces are advancing.
In a somewhat contradictory statement he said that chemical weapons must be deployed by sophisticated personnel so no rogue government soldiers could do it without his knowledge. He also said that the sarin gas used in August is not sophisticated and could be made in the backyard. So, which is it? I think Charlie caught him on this one.
He stated several times that the terrorists (who we refer to as rebels) were getting aid and support from the West, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others. That is why the conflict has lasted for more than two years. He would not admit that he is getting support from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah and insisted that they are cooperating with Syria. I failed to ever get the exact distinction between support and cooperation. He stated that Hezbollah troops are only located around the Lebanon border and not throughout the country.
Assad insists that the rebels are terrorists and are mostly Al Qaeda. Charlie pointed out that only 15% to 20% of the opposition is from outside Syria. Assad would not agree with that number and said nobody knows.
In some propaganda speak he said he has the support of the Syrian people. The civil war is not about him. He is serving those people and would leave if he didn't have their support. He said we are labeling the terrorists as opposition.
Assad will do anything to prevent the region from having another crazy war. Hypothetically he would give up his WMDs, provided he has any, if that would prevent war. He did admit that he learned from his father, a 30 year dictator, that the only way to stop opposition is to eliminate them.
Charlie never asked Assad about free elections although he did call him a dictator several times. Assad never took offense at that term or denied he was a dictator. I must give Assad credit for one statement that rings true. He stated that the US fails in most of it's wars because the wars are based on wrong information.
Bashar al-Assad is a dictator and I believe he has killed many innocent Syrians both in the current conflict and over the years to maintain power. He danced around many of the questions but that is standard operating procedure for all government leaders including our own. He twisted certain facts or left out key points. Again listen to any press conference of our Washington politicians.
Sadly, I don't believe either side is giving us the full story. Our government has not exactly been building public trust over the past several years.
Late breaking news this morning (9/10) indicates that Assad may surrender his chemical weapons in exchange for stopping or at least delaying a US air strike. Let's hope so. Let's hope that the US can stay out of this conflict. We don't need to put our troops in harms way to solve a Syrian problem. We've done more than enough in that region. Many of us have lost family members or friends. Many others are physically and/or mentally damaged. Some of us have family still in the region. Let's stop being the world's cop.
It's 2013, we should have better methods to get rid of the bad guys and keep peace.