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 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.