Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sat down for another interview with a U.S. television station on Tuesday, this time for Fox News (sorry, George Stephanopoulos). The interview, which aired Wednesday evening, was brokered by former congressman and current Fox News contributor Dennis Kucinich. It's the second big sit-down in just a few weeks for the formerly reticent Syrian leader, just after the U.S. threatened to punish the country for an August 21 chemical attack with military action. Kucinich, who Fox News's Bret Baier said was not interviewing Assad as a journalist, tag teamed the interview with Fox News reporter Greg Palkot, who represented the station's news team.
The Syrian presidency was pleased enough with the Fox News interview to share it on YouTube, so those who missed it can watch it here.
They've also posted a transcript. Below, however, are some of the important bits:
On Syria's chemical weapons: When asked by Kucinich whether Syria's decision to join a UN treaty banning chemical weapons is an implicit acknowledgement that the country has a stockpile, Assad said, "that's why we joined," adding, "Its not a secret anymore."
Fox News: Okay, but can you tell us now? Do you have chemical weapons or don’t you?
President Assad: Of course, when we joined the treaty last week, it means that we have, and we said that, so it’s not secret anymore.
Fox News: So, as far as the American people, you will agree that you do have a stockpile of chemical weapons?
President Assad: That’s why we joined the international agreement, in order to get rid of them.
Assad estimated that it would cost them a billion dollars and one year of time to destroy their chemical weapons stockpile and capabilities, which would be required under the UN agreement. He added that the destruction process was "very detrimental to the environment."
Fox News: But you’re prepared to hand them over at some point for the safe destruction of them?
President Assad: It doesn’t matter where. As I said, in the end, if you’re going to destroy them, it doesn’t matter where they go.
Fox News: Are there any conditions?
President Assad: No, we don’t have any conditions. Send it anywhere. In the end, if they’re going to be destroyed, they could be destroyed anywhere. As I said, it’s very detrimental to the environment, so whichever country is ready to take risk of these materials let them take it.
Kucinich also asked whether Fox News could film some of their chemical weapons facilities, to which Assad said they were welcome to ask for permission. Assad also reiterated his point that the country didn't agree to a possible diplomatic solution here because of the U.S. threat for military action: "there's a misunderstanding that we agreed with this agreement because of the Americans," he said, adding that they were just going along with a Russian initiative.
It looks like Assad may have slipped at one point, using the word "again" in reference to the use of chemical weapons. But officially, Assad still denies that Syria has used them:
Assad, on chemical weapons: US threat was about "attacking Syria in order to not use the arsenal again." Again? A slip?— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) September 18, 2013
Of the UN report on the August 21st attack: Palkot asked whether Assad agreed, now that the U.N. report is out, that a chemical attack happened near Damascus on August 21st. "That information is different from the evidence," Assad said, adding that "we have to look at it, we have to discuss it," before deciding whether they agree with the report.
Fox News: No, do you agree with the assessment that a chemical weapon attack occurred on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21st?
President Assad: That’s the information that we have, but information is different from evidence.
Fox News: It’s different. You disagree with the UN report?
President Assad: No, no, I don’t disagree. You have to wait till you have evidence. You can agree or disagree when you have evidence.
Fox News: They have the evidence. They’ve interviewed 40-50 people on the ground.
President Assad: Yeah, we have to discuss the evidence with them. We have to discuss it with them because they are coming back; they haven’t finished their mission yet. They are going back, and we have to discuss it with them, we have to see the details, but we cannot disagree without having the opposite evidence. So, nobody said that it was not used, because in March, we invited the delegation to Syria because Sarin gas was used in March. We have the evidence that it was used in March in Aleppo. So, when I talk as an official, I can talk about the evidence that I have.
Fox News: Okay, but they put out a 38-page report; I mean it’s been posted since yesterday. I don’t know whether you’ve had a chance to look at it.
President Assad: No, not yet. We have to look at it, we have to discuss it before saying we agree or disagree. It’s only yesterday evening.
When asked about the visual evidence of the attack, Assad said that "no one verified the credibility of the videos or pictures," saying that there's been "a lot of forgery" in the past. Assad said his regime would depend on blood and soil samples. Speaking to evidence that the attacks came from Assad's forces, the president said, "Sarin gas is called kitchen gas," adding "Do you know why? Because anyone can make sarin in his house." On whether Assad would allow the UN to come back for future investigations, the president blamed the U.S. for not letting the UN team to investigate thoroughly enough the first time. Assad implied that he believes a more thorough investigation would prove his argument right.
On the country's civil war: Assad denied that his country was in the midst of a civil war, saying that instead the conflict was "a new kind" of war — one in which Syria is defending itself against foreign jihadi groups masquerading as Syrian opposition. He blamed "terrorists" — defined here as the foreign forces Assad believes are influencing the majority of the rebel fighting in the country, for most of the violence in the country.
Fox News: These are the rebels? You’re not maintaining that all of your opponents are Jihadists, are you?
President Assad: No, not all of them. Of course we have many other different groups, but they are small, they are becoming a minority. At the very beginning, the Jihadists were the minority. In the end of 2012, and during this year they became the majority with the flow of tens of thousands from different countries.
Fox News: Where are they getting their money from? Can you tell us right now?
President Assad: Mainly from donations.
Fox News: But donations from where? Can you name nations that are donating?
President Assad: From everywhere in the Islamic world. They mainly come from individuals, not from countries. We don’t know if some countries support them directly, we don’t have any information. I have to be very precise, but mainly from donations from people who carry the same ideology in their minds.
Fox News: You mentioned before that some figures that are given are exaggeration. Can you tell us now how many Syrians have died in this conflict?
President Assad: We have tens of thousands of Syrians that have died, mainly because of the terrorist attacks, assassinations, and suicide bombers, the majority.
Fox News: And how many are your government’s soldiers?
President Assad: More than 15,000.
Later in the interview, Assad said that he believes 80 to 90 percent of the rebel fighters in his country were al Qaeda. He also repeated a response from an earlier interview to the brutality of some of the Syrian government's actions: "you don't have soft war. You don't have a good war." Assad also discussed the refugees fleeing his country in droves, again, saying that most of those displaced are fleeing because of the rebels, and not because of his government. When pressed by Palkot on his claim that the opposition is not legitimately Syrian, Assad said that they "do not have Syrian grassroots."
On being a doctor: "Doctors take the right decision to protect the life of the patient," Assad says. "Sometimes they have to distract the [bad element]" that could kill the patient, he said. "Nobody likes the violence...but what do you do when the terrorists attack," he said. Assad again compared his decision to "help" his people to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, an analogy he uses to argue that the opposition in his country is illegitimate.
On the U.S.: Assad called the U.S."the greatest country in the world," on camera, while implicitly questioning the credibility of the Obama administration.
Fox News: Mr. President, according to the New York Times President Obama said the greater goal with respect to Syria is to curb chemical weapons use and proliferation of chemical weapons worldwide. Do you believe this could be a chance to reset Syria’s relations with the United States?
President Assad: That depends on the credibility of the administration; any administration, and that depends on the US administration.
Fox News: But you do not say that our president does not have credibility; I am asking you if this is an opportunity for you to reset relations with the United States?
President Assad: As I said, the relation depends on the credibility of the administration. We never looked at the United States as enemy; we never looked at the American people as enemy. We always like to have good relations with every country in the world and first of all the United States because it is the greatest country in the world. That is normal and self-evident. But that does not mean to say and to go in the direction that the United States wants us to go in. We have our interest, we have civilization and we have our will. They have to accept and respect that. We do not have a problem with mutual respect. We want to have good relations, of course.
That's some high-grade playing to the Fox News audience.
Assad said that he's never talked to President Obama, and that any plans to do so would depend on the content of that conversation. His message to Obama? "Listen to your people. Follow the common sense of your people." which is more or less a reference to the unpopularity of Syrian intervention among Americans.
Many of Fox News's viewers (and presenters!) reacted with healthy skepticism to Assad:
Looking at Assad, can you believe he is an eye doctor? And will you now be suspicious of your eye doctor?— Greta Van Susteren (@gretawire) September 18, 2013
Assad has a logical narrative. True? Hell no. No remorse for mass murders.— Kyle Abbott (@KyleTAbbott) September 18, 2013
Assad on Fox News.... Hard to read that guy... Strange answers to hard questions . Sounds like a lot of BS to me..— Jim Armstrong (@jarmstrongiv63) September 18, 2013
While some conservative viewers compared Assad favorably to the U.S. president:
Assad is giving a better interview than Obama ever has, theres no "What I have said was" or "Let me be clear" & he's not blaming Republicans— Jim Nichols (@jimcc66) September 18, 2013
Bashar al-Assad being interviewed on FOX now...he speaks perfect English and is NOT the loon or madman Obama and... http://t.co/cVroGNWlr0— Barracuda Brigade (@BarracudaMama) September 18, 2013
Watching interview with Assad on Fox. Not only is he much brighter than our president, he comes across as more believable as well.— exceller (@arljim78) September 18, 2013
On #foxnews Assad has held my attention...I usually stomp out of the room when Obama speaks!— Conservative Voice (@CV_People) September 18, 2013
While that interview aired, Yahoo News posted an interview with Stephen Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, who said that Assad should "absolutely" face trial for war crimes. The official says he's obtained over 200,000 pages of documents linking Syria to the attack.