WASHINGTON — Syrian President Bashar Assad said Wednesday that he is committed to relinquishing Syria’s chemical arsenal without conditions and as quickly as possible in a Fox News Channel interview that is the latest installment in a charm offensive intended to counter portrayals of him as a bloodthirsty dictator.
Responding to questions for an hour, Assad appeared as a mild-mannered bureaucrat explaining in fluent English why he’s waging an unfortunate but necessary war against al-Qaida extremists, the same ones who fought U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He bristled at calling the rebel forces fighting to topple him as “opposition” and claimed that 80 percent to 90 percent are al-Qaida-linked terrorists. He played down the high death toll of the war, claiming that most of those killed were terrorists.
“Opposition doesn’t mean to carry weapons and kill people, innocents, and to destroy schools, destroy infrastructure,” Assad said. Later in the segment, he added, “This is war. You don’t have clean war.”
He didn’t dispute U.N. findings that sarin gas was used in a deadly Aug. 21 attack, but he blamed it on the rebel forces, which he said are made up of jihadists who’ve streamed into Syria from more than 80 countries. He derided sarin as a “kitchen gas,” saying it can be made at home, and blamed its use on fighters that are “supported by governments,” a veiled reference to Persian Gulf rebel financiers such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The wide-ranging interview was conducted by the network’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, Greg Palkot, and former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, who’s a commentator for the network and has met Assad on previous occasions. Last week, Assad granted an interview to Charlie Rose of CBS and PBS, but canceled an interview he’d arranged with George Stephanopoulos of ABC.
Analysts say the strategy behind Assad’s media blitz goes beyond simply avoiding a U.S. strike in retaliation for deadly chemical attacks. The broader mission is to convince the West that no matter how brutal his regime appears to outsiders, the alternative is worse.
At every opportunity, Assad drove home the fact that the rebel movement is dominated by Islamist militants who’ve carried out beheadings, car bombings and other terrorist acts the regime knows will strike a chord with an American audience. Assad, as he did in the earlier CBS interview, pointedly mentioned an incident where a rebel leader was captured on video cutting an organ from a dead Syrian soldier’s body and taking a bite from it.
At another point in the Fox interview, Assad referred to the United States as “the greatest country in the world.”
“He’s saying, ‘I’m Westernized, I’m quiet spoken, I’m not screaming jihad, and I’m the devil you can work with,’ ” said Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and a former CBS News correspondent in the Middle East. “And that’s what American foreign policy has been about for decades — working with the devil you can to keep out the ones you don’t want.”
Pintak, who’s interviewed the late Saddam Hussein, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and several other dictators, said Assad’s understated persona and background as an eye doctor who was educated in England are benefits to his media campaign. His clean-shaven, business-suited image makes for a stark juxtaposition with bearded, gun-toting rebels waving the black flag of militant Islamists.
“It’s public diplomacy at its best,” Pintak said. “It’s fascinating to watch someone who operates in a completely controlled media environment being so deft at managing his own image in the West.”
It also helps Assad’s cause, analysts note, that the American public doesn’t need much persuading when it comes to staying out of Syria’s bloody civil war. Poll results repeatedly have shown how unpopular any form of U.S. intervention is, even after a steady flow of amateur videos showing the death and suffering in a conflict that’s already claimed more than 100,000 lives and forced millions from their homes. Americans overwhelmingly oppose not only direct U.S. strikes, survey results show, but indirect help such as arming the rebels who are fighting Assad’s forces.
Assad clearly was aware of those polls, saying in response to a question from Kucinich that Obama should listen to the American people.
“Listen to your people. Follow the common sense of your people,” Assad said when asked what message he would send to Obama.
“Assad is watching that the support was not there, and he’s seeing that there are many doubters. He knows that most of the public knows that the Iraq experience backfired — sending in troops to remove a dictator only to end up with something worse,” said Jamal Dajani, an award-winning Arab journalist who advises Internews, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower local media.
Although Secretary of State John Kerry and some members of Congress — most notably Arizona Republican John McCain — try to paint the extremist threat as overblown, it’s clear to close observers of the conflict that al-Qaida-style extremists make up the most effective, if not the largest, rebel factions — a position former CIA deputy director Michael Morell also made in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
That’s the message Assad wants to hammer home to counter media portrayals that have painted his regime as responsible for vicious offensives, widespread arrests and crackdowns on all forms of opposition.
It would seem he found the perfect conduit in Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who lost his seat last year in a primary and is now a commentator on Fox. He strongly opposed the Iraq war and is a vocal opponent of U.S. military action in Syria.
In a Sept. 4 posting on his official Twitter account, Kucinich warned that al-Qaida was positioned to take over Syria if U.S. action ousted Assad. He added: “What message are we sending our troops? ‘Fight ‘em in Iraq, support ‘em in Syria.’ ”
Kucinich garnered criticism for his previous visits to Assad, including a trip in 2011 when the civil war already had begun. He claimed that the Syrian state media “mistranslated several of my statements” after receiving a backlash for quotations describing Assad as “highly loved and appreciated by Syrians.”
While the Fox correspondent Palkot grilled Assad about details of his commitment to the chemical weapons deal and about his transformation from a “reformer” to a “dictator,” Kucinich generally sounded more sympathetic to the Syrian leader. Even post-interview commentary on Fox News poked fun at Kucinich for sounding “delusional” for such propositions as a rapprochement between Assad and the opposition, or whether Assad’s disarmament could spark a global peace initiative.
Kucinich brought up Assad’s medical credentials and asked him how his actions squared with the Hippocratic Oath. Assad replied that doctors must protect the life of a patient, but that “sometimes they have to extract the bad member that could kill the patient,” an allusion to the “terrorists” his forces are trying to rout from Syrian society.
British media first reported that Kucinich was back in Damascus this week. The Syrian presidency’s social media pages later confirmed the news and said that Kucinich was part of an American delegation that included former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney.
Michael Clemente, executive vice president for news at Fox, said in a statement that Kucinich had advised him Sept. 7 that he thought he could secure an interview with Assad. At the time, Clemente said, the U.S. appeared ready to strike Syria, so he asked Kucinich to pursue an interview on conditions that Fox News journalists would be included. By the time the interview was filmed, by a Syrian crew and with no restrictions on questions that could be asked, the U.S. and Russia had struck a deal to seize Assad’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
The political and armed opposition sides have yet to master the art of public relations, in large part because they’re made up of notoriously divided figures who’ve failed to form a united front with one message. Spokespeople are often difficult to reach, opposition leaders contradict one another. Among the rebels, media coordination is also spotty, and it’s often the extremist fighters who boast the most sophisticated media wings. Opposition activists have taken extreme risks to document the grisly aftermaths of government offensives, only to find their work undermined by other videos that have been exposed as outdated or staged.
Many anti-Assad activists blame the United States and other Western powers for waiting so long to bolster the moderate opposition that now the war would appear to outsiders as a showdown between an authoritarian regime and al-Qaida. Assad doesn’t hesitate to exploit that simplistic narrative.
“President Obama’s indecisiveness has created an opportunity for Assad to push his agenda and to peddle himself as a far better alternative to the rebels. He is succeeding,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and human rights activist. “Even the secular opposition hasn’t been able to produce the right caliber leaders to rise to the PR challenges.”