The room in Damascus is clean, neat, symmetrical. The table has almost the exact circumference as a circle that it stands on in the regionally inflected rug. The skinny dictator, the precise eye surgeon who didn’t like the site of blood, sits straight, pointing with erect fingers. All that’s off is the rumpled American Southerner questioning him. But Charlie Rose came ready. He did not appear as he frequently does on his late-night show—a sometimes soothing, sometimes baffling mix of docile and self-aggrandizing. He asked tough questions, and he let Syrian President Bashar Assad respond. And he did not let him off the hook. (Excerpts of the interview ran on CBS’s “This Morning,” while the full interview will air tonight on PBS’s “Charlie Rose.” Clips are available on the CBS News website.)
Assad speaks softly, in basically fluent English with an Arabic accent tinted, perhaps, with a trace of the time he spent in ophthalmology school in London. Though his clear goal is to try to dissuade the United States from launching a military attack, he speaks as though unconcerned, or as though trying to hide concern. What is striking is how little of his case relies on the kind of knowledge that the head of Syria, and only the head of Syria and other officials in his government, could be expected to have. Most of his arguments are arguments anyone could make.
Assad denies knowledge of a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta; the Obama administration alleges the regime killed 1,400, 400 of them children, there with chemical agent on August 21; Assad uses “allegedly” with journalistic care. It is weak sauce. “We're not there,” he says (according to a transcript emailed by CBS News, which I have occasionally edited lightly for clarity and typos). “Our forces, our police, our institutions don't exist. How can you talk about what happened if you don't have evidences? We’re not like the American administration. We're not social media administration or government. We are the government that deal with reality.” He adds: “The Russians have completely opposite evidence that the missiles were thrown from area where the rebels controlled.” He’s only a pawn in their game, he implies. Later, he and Rose go several rounds over whether adequate public evidence has been presented.
Then he moves on to offering reasons why the U.S. should not attack; why U.S. congressmen should not vote for President Barack Obama’s use-of-force resolution; and why the American people should not support an attack. Again, Assad’s case does not, on its face, rely upon proprietary information. “This is the war that is going to support Al Qaeda and the same people that kill Americans on the 11 of September,” he tells Rose. “The second thing that we all want to tell to the Congress, that they should ask and that what we expect, we expect them to ask this administration about the evidence that they have regarding the chemical story and the allegations that they presented.”
But then comes the really scary part. The part where Assad no longer seems the calm, aloof eye surgeon. Rose asks, “Will there be attacks against American bases in Middle East if there is an airstrike?” “You should expect everything,” Assad replies. “Not necessarily from the government. It's not only—the government are not the only player in this region. You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology. You have everything in this region now. So you have to expect that.” Rose follows up, “Including chemical warfare?” Assad answers: “That depends if the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it, it could happen I don't know. I am not fortune teller to tell you what's going to happen.” Rose gets more specific, asking if Syrian allies Russia, Iran, or Hezbollah could be expected to respond. “It may take different forms, direct and indirect,” Assad says. “Direct when people wants to retaliate—or governments. Indirect when we’re going to have instability and the spread of terrorism all over the region that will influence the West directly.”
If this seems familiar, it is because you have seen it in a dozen movies and television shows about the mob. Assad comes across as a thug. Nice legs you’ve got there—shame if you broke them. I’m not saying American bases will be struck if you attack Syria, but I sure wouldn’t do it if I were you. Lotta crazy people in this region.
Although Assad would neither confirm nor deny whether the Syrian regime has chemical weapons, Assad does state flatly, “We are against WMD.” And asked whether there is a difference between nuclear warfare and chemical warfare, he responds, “Morally, they’re the same….But at the end, killing is killing.” Not sure that is the sound bite he wanted to leave us with.