Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has remained largely out of public view since the Obama administration began lobbying for support of an airstrike to punish the regime for alleged use of sarin gas in violation of international law. Until now.
In a wide-ranging interview that airs in full Monday evening, Assad sat down in Damascus with CBS News’ Charlie Rose to respond to allegations that he had used chemical weapons; reflect on how his reputation had changed from potential democrat to despot; and to offer thinly veiled warnings of how his allies would respond in the event of a US attack.
Five takeaways from the interview:
1. “Nobody expected the 11th of September.”
In response to questions about how the regime would respond if attacked by the United States, Assad said Washington should “expect everything,” including terrorist attacks. “The governments are not the only player in this region. You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideologies, you have everything in this region now,” he said. When Rose asked him if he meant that a response could include the use of chemical weapons, he said, “That depends. If the rebels or the terrorists in this region, or any other group in this region have it, it could happen, I don’t know, I’m not a fortune teller.” Hinting at unforeseen consequences that could come from an attack in a region he described as “on the brink of explosion,” Assad said, “Nobody expected the 11th of September.”
2. “We don’t call him butcher, we call him a doctor.”
Rose asked Assad how he feels about his image on the international stage, as it has plummeted over the years from hopeful reformer to vicious dictator. His response, an apparent attempt to justify brutality in the face of insurrection, is bone chilling: “When you have a doctor who cuts the leg to prevent the patient from the gangrene if you have to, we don’t call him butcher, we call him a doctor,” Assad said. “When you have terrorism you have a war, when you have a war you always have innocent lives that could be the victim of any war. “
3. “Not a single shred of evidence.”
Comparing Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertions to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s misleading presentation to the United Nations in the run up to the Iraq War, Assad said there is “not a single shred of evidence” to support the claim that his regime is responsible for the use of chemical weapons.
4. “We prepare ourselves for every possibility.”
Despite the version of reality presented by his Instagram account, Assad says things have not been all wine and roses for his inner circle since the war began more than two years ago. When Rose asks him if he’s prepared for a U.S. airstrike, Assad says, “We have been living in difficult circumstances for the last two years and a half, and we prepare ourselves for every possibility. But that doesn’t mean if you’re prepared things will get better. It’s going to get worse with any foolish strike or stupid war.”
5. “This war is going to support Al Qaeda and the same people responsible for 9/11”
When Rose asks Assad what he would say to the U.S. Congress if given the opportunity, he asserts that an American attack on Syria — the prospect of which he refers to repeatedly as “war” — is against American interests, and cites recent polls that indicate a lack of support among the American people for an airstrike. “The United States’ (credibility) is at an all-time low. This war is against the interests of the United States. Why? First of all this war is going to support al Qaeda and the same people that killed Americans in the 11th of September.” He goes on to ask Congress to closely scrutinize the evidence the adminisrtation presents to support what Assad calls, “the chemical story.”