Charlie Rose interviews the Syrian dictator as a four-year-old civil war drags on in which his regime has been accused of devastating attacks on civilians
March 29, 2014
The following is a script from “Bashar al-Assad” which aired on March 29, 2015. Charlie Rose is the correspondent.
Four years ago, the Obama administration declared that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must go. Today, President Assad is still there, but much of the country has gone. Assad’s Syrian government has lost control over significant amounts of its territory — to either ISIS or Syrian rebel groups. Four million Syrian refugees have fled the country. More than 200,000 have died — most from Syrian military bombing of territory controlled by his opponents.
With the rise of ISIS in Syria, toppling Assad is no longer the highest priority there for the United States. And last month, Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS News, the U.S. is open to negotiating with Syria, something, we discovered, Assad wants.
We traveled to Damascus this past week and met with Assad for an interview, under the conditions that we use Syrian TV technicians and cameras. We begin by asking him about American airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
Charlie Rose: How much of a benefit are you getting from American airstrikes in Syria reducing the power of ISIS?
President Assad: Sometimes you could have local benefit but in general if you want to talk in terms of ISIS actually ISIS has expanded since the beginning of the strikes. Not like some– American– wants to sugar coat the situation as the– to say that it’s getting better. As– ISIS is being defeated and so on. Actually, no, you have more recruits. Some estimates that they have 1,000 recruits every month in Syria. And Iraq– they are expanding in Libya and many other al Qaeda affiliate organizations have announced their allegiance to ISIS. So that’s the situation.
Charlie Rose: How much territory do they control in Syria?
President Assad: Sorry?
Charlie Rose: ISIS. Controls how much territory. 50 percent?
“…it’s not traditional war. It’s not about capturing land and gaining land. It’s about winning the hearts and minds of the Syrians. We cannot win the heart and minds of the Syrians while we are killing Syrians.”
President Assad: Yeah, it’s not regular war. We cannot– you don’t have criteria. It’s not an army that makes– it make the incursion. They go to infidels. They try to infiltrate any area when there is no army and we have– inhibitance. The question, how much incubator they have, that’s the question. How much heart and minds they won so far.
Charlie Rose: And how much of that? How do you measure that–
President Assad: You cannot measure it but you can tell that the majority of the people who suffered from ISIS, they are supporting the government and, of course, the rest of the Syrian people are afraid from ISIS and I don’t think they would– I think they lost a lot of hearts and minds.
Charlie Rose: They’ve lost a lot?
President Assad: They have lost. Except the very ideological people who have Wahhabi state of mind and ideology.
Charlie Rose: There is another number that is alarming to me. It is that 90 percent of the civilian casualties, 90 percent come from the Syrian army.
President Assad: How did you get that result?
Charlie Rose: That was a report that was issued in the last six months.
President Assad: OK. As I said earlier, the war, it’s not about– it’s not traditional war. It’s not about capturing land and gaining land. It’s about winning the hearts and minds of the Syrians. We cannot win the heart and minds of the Syrians while we are killing Syrians. We cannot sustain four years in that position as a government. And me as president, while the rest of the world, most of the world, the great powers, the regional power, are against me and my people are against me. That’s impossible. I mean this logic has no leg to stand on. So this is not realistic and this is against our interests as government is to kill the people. What do we get? What the benefit of killing the people?
Charlie Rose: Well, the argument is that you– there are weapons of war that have been used that most people look down on with great– one is chlorine gas. They believe that has been used here. They said there is evidence of that and they would like to have the right to inspect to see where it’s coming from. As you know, barrel bombs have been used. And they come from helicopters. And the only people who have helicopters is the Syrian army. And so those two acts of war, which has– society looks down on as–
President Assad: Let me fully answer this.
Charlie Rose: –barbaric acts.
President Assad: It’s very important. This is part of the malicious propaganda against Syria. First of all, the chlorine gas is not military gas. You can buy it anywhere.
Charlie Rose: But it can be weaponized–
President Assad: No, because it’s not very effective it’s not used as military gas. That’s very self-evident. Traditional arms is more important than chlorine. And if it was very effective the terrorists would have used this on a larger scale. Because it’s not effective, it’s not used very much.
Charlie Rose: Then why doesn’t somebody come in and inspect it and see whether it’s been used or not?
President Assad: Well, we– well, we– we–
Charlie Rose: You’d be–
President Assad: –we– we would–
Charlie Rose: –you’re happy for that?
President Assad: Of course. We all–we always ask a delegation, impartial delegation to come and investigate. But I mean logically and realistically it cannot be used as a military. This is part of the propaganda because, as you know, in the media when it bleeds it leads. And they always look for something that bleeds, which is the chlorine gas and the barrel bombs.
Charlie Rose: You do use barrel bombs? You’re just saying–
President Assad: No, no. There’s no such a thing called barrel bombs. We have bombs. And any bomb is about killing.
Charlie Rose: You have often spoken about the danger of a wider war in the Middle East.
President Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: Can you talk about the parties involved? And characterize how you see them. Let me begin with Saudi Arabia.
President Assad: Saudi Arabia is–an (unintel) autocracy. Medieval system that’s based on the Wahhabi dark ideology. Actually, say it’s a marriage between the Wahhabi and the political system for 200 years now. That’s how we look at it.
Charlie Rose: And what is their connection to ISIS?
President Assad: The same ideology. The same background.
Charlie Rose: So ISIS and Saudi Arabia are one and the same?
President Assad: The same ideology. Yes.
Charlie Rose: Same ideology.
President Assad: I don’t– it’s Wahhabi ideology. They base the–their ideology is based on the books of the Wahhabi and Saudi Arabia.
Charlie Rose: So you believe that all Wahhabis have the same ideology as ISIS–
President Assad: Exactly. Definitely. And that’s by ISIS, by al Qaeda, by al Nusra. It’s not something we discover or we try to promote. It’s very– I mean their book– they use the same books to indoctrinate the people. The Wahhabi books-
Charlie Rose: What about Turkey?
President Assad: Turkey– let’s say it’s about Erdogan. His Muslim Brotherhood fanatics.
Charlie Rose: And you–
President Assad: It doesn’t mean that he is a member. But he’s a fanatic.
Charlie Rose: President Erdogan is–
President Assad: Is a Muslim Brotherhood fanatic. And he’s somebody who’s suffering from political megalomania. And that he thinks that he is becoming the sultan of the new era of the 21st century.
Charlie Rose: You think he could stop the border if he wanted to?
President Assad: Yeah, of course. Definitely. He doesn’t only ignore the terrorists from coming to Syria. He support them, logistically and militarily. Directly. On daily basis.
Charlie Rose: Tell us what the Russians want. They are a strong ally of you.
President Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: What do they want?
President Assad: Definitely they want to have balance in the world. It’s not only about Syria. And small country. It’s not about having a huge interest in Syria, they could have it anywhere else. So, it’s about the future of the world. They want to be a great power that– have– their own say in the future of this world.
Charlie Rose: And what do they want for Syria?
President Assad: Stability. They want–
Charlie Rose: Stability.
President Assad: –stability, and political solution.
Charlie Rose: And what does Iran want?
President Assad: The same. The same. Syria, and Iran, and Russia, see eye-to-eye regarding these conflicts.
Charlie Rose: And what is your obligation to both of them?
President Assad: What do you mean obligation?
Charlie Rose: What is your– what do you owe them?
President Assad: Yeah, I know. But, they didn’t ask me for anything. Nothing at all. That’s why what I said– they don’t do that for Syria. They do it for the region, and for the world. ‘Cause stability is very important for them.
Charlie Rose: You and your father have held power in Syria for how many years?
President Assad: Is it a calculation of years?
Charlie Rose: Yes.
President Assad: Or public support?
Charlie Rose: No, years. How long–
President Assad: There’s a big difference. It doesn’t matter, how many years, the question–
Charlie Rose: Well, it does matter. I mean–
President Assad: No, what’s matter for us, do the Syrians support, these two presidents, doesn’t matter is they are father and son. We don’t say–W- George W. Bush is the son of George Bush. It’s different. He’s president, I’m president, he has support from that generation, I have support from this generation now.
“…the West, and especially the United States, don’t accept partners. They only accept followers. Even Europe is not partner of the United States. That’s to be very frank with you. So, this is their problem with Syria. They need somebody to keep saying yes.”
Charlie Rose: But the question– how do you–
President Assad: Doesn’t matter how many. It’s not– it’s not the family rule, as you want to imply.
Charlie Rose: It’s not?
President Assad: No.
Charlie Rose: Why do you think that they– people in the West, question your legitimacy?
President Assad: This intervention in Syria matters. I don’t care about it, to be frank. I never care about it. As long as I have the public support of the Syrian people. That’s my legitimacy; legitimacy comes from the inside, but why? I will tell you why. Because the West used to have puppets. Not independent leaders, or officials in any other country. And that the problem with Putin. They demonize Putin because he can say no, and he wants to be independent. Because the West, and especially the United States, don’t accept partners. They only accept followers. Even Europe is not partner of the United States. That’s to be very frank with you. So, this is their problem with Syria. They need somebody to keep saying yes. Yes– a puppet. Marionette. And so on.
Charlie Rose: What circumstances would cause you to give up power?
President Assad: When I don’t have the public support. When I don’t represent the Syrian interests, and values.
Charlie Rose: And how do you determine that?
President Assad: I have daily contact with the– with the people. How could any–
Charlie Rose: So, you’re– you determine whether they support you?
President Assad: No, no, no. I don’t determine. I sense. I feel. I’m in contact with them. I’m a human. How can a human make that expectation of the population? I mean, the war was very important lab for this support. I mean, they could have– if they don’t support you, they could have– go and support the other side. They didn’t. Why? That’s very clear. That’s very concrete.
Charlie Rose: I came here after Secretary Kerry had made his remarks. My impression once I got here is that when you heard those remarks you were optimistic. The state department backed– back a little bit, and said we still think there needs to be a new government. But you were optimistic after you heard that. You believe there is a way for your government and the American government to cooperate?
President Assad: Yeah.
Charlie Rose: And coordinate?
President Assad: That’s not the main point– after– I mean– regarding that statement. I think– I think the main point we could have feeling, and we hope that we are right, that American administration started to abandon this policy of isolation. Which is very harmful to them, and to us. Because if you isolate country, isolate yourself, as the United States, from being influential, and effective, and the course of events, unless you are talking about the negative influence, like make embargo, that could kill the people slowly. Or launching war and supporting terrorists that could kill them in a faster way. So, our impression is that we are optimistic, more optimistic, I wouldn’t exaggerate. That at least when they’re thinking about dialogue, doesn’t matter what kind of dialogue, and what the content of the dialogue. And even doesn’t matter for the real intentions. But the word dialogue is something we haven’t heard from the United States on the global level for a long time.
Charlie Rose: But you just did, from the secretary of state. We need to negotiate.
President Assad: Exactly, that’s–
Charlie Rose: That’s a dialogue.
President Assad: That’s what I said. I mean, that’s why I said it’s positive. That’s what I said, we are more optimistic. I mean, when they abandoned this policy of isolation, things should be better. I mean, when you start the dialogue things will be better.
Charlie Rose: Why don’t you reach out to Secretary Kerry and say, “Let’s talk.”
President Assad: Are they ready to talk?
Charlie Rose: Let’s talk.
President Assad: We are always open. We never close our doors. They should be ready for the talk, they should be ready for the negotiation. We didn’t make an embargo on the United States. We didn’t attack the American population. We didn’t support terrorists who did anything in United States. Actually, the United States did. We were always– we always wanted to have good relation with the United States. We never thought in the other direction. It’s a great power. Nobody– no– not a wise person think of having bad relation with United States.
Charlie Rose: Yeah, but can you have good relationship with a country that thinks you shouldn’t be in power?
President Assad: No, that’s not going to be part of the dialogue that I mentioned earlier. This is not their business. We have Syrian citizens, who can decide this. No one else. Whether they want to talk about it or not. This is not something we’re going to discuss with anyone.
Charlie Rose: This cannot end militarily. Do you agree with that?
President Assad: Yeah, definitely. Every conflict, even if it’s a war, should end with a political solution.