It appears as if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has his own US media strategy: He’s given a full-length interview to veteran broadcaster Charlie Rose that has already been taped in Damascus. Snippets were broadcast on CBS Monday morning, and the full thing will be shown on PBS in the evening.
Will sitting down and talking with a respected American journalist help Mr. Assad avoid a looming US attack in retaliation for his alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people?
That depends on how the US audience, and in particular members of Congress, respond to Assad’s words, of course. Some might see an English-speaking leader who sounds reasonable while making antiwar arguments. Others might bridle at what they see as Assad’s lies and threats.
On one hand, Assad makes a case against attacks that sounds as if it could have come from a US cable-news talking head. He cites polls showing widespread opposition against striking Syria among US voters and says Congress is elected to respect voter wishes.
“What do wars give America?... Nothing. No political gain, no economic gain, no good reputation.... So this war is against the interests of the United States. Why?” Assad said, according to transcripts of interview highlights posted on the Facebook page of Norah O’Donnell of "CBS This Morning."
Assad says that any US attack will benefit only Al Qaeda. He has long claimed that the rebels he is fighting are all extremists and Islamists. He compared Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertions of Syrian chemical weapons use to the presentation of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, prior to the Iraq war, which mistakenly charged that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
Also, Assad continued to deny that his regime had authorized the use of chemical weapons. He said his forces had not been in the area where the alleged use occurred. In another area, he said, his own solders were “attacked chemically.”
“How can you talk about what happened if you don’t have evidences?” Assad told Mr. Rose, speaking in English.
“We are not a social-media administration,” he added, in what appeared to be a dig at the Obama administration’s strategy of using modern means to communicate with voters. “We are an administration that deals with reality.”
Actually, the Assad regime is something of a social-media administration. Among other things, it maintains an Instagram account on which it posts pictures of a smiling Assad going about daily business and his wife, Asma, doing good deeds.
The Rose interview seems part of this media approach to portray Assad to the West as a warm, secular leader, as opposed to an autocrat whose forces have killed thousands of Syrian civilians as they wage a ferocious civil war.
Assad does not bluster, as so many autocrats do, notes Max Fisher, Washington Post foreign affairs blogger. He is casual, takes tough questions without flinching, and turns the argument back to pressure points of US politics.
“Assad seems to betray a nuanced understanding of American politics and of the US debate over strikes – and where it’s weakest,” Mr. Fisher writes.
But Assad’s mask slips a bit at one point, when he says that if the US carries out an attack on his regime, in retaliation “you should expect everything.”
This response, he added, might not necessarily come from his own government. “If you strike somewhere, you have to expect repercussions somewhere else in different forms,” Assad said.
Threatening the US, even implicitly, does not usually play well with US voters.
Meanwhile, President Obama faces an uphill battle to get congressional approval for possible Syrian strikes. If the vote came today, he would probably lose. The Washington Post’s latest whip counts show 116 representatives against military action and 116 leaning “no.” A total of 217 votes will pass or kill the authorization.
Thus in a narrow sense, Assad’s interview might be a mistake. In politics, when your opponent is in trouble, it is often best to keep your mouth shut.