Bashar al-Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose shows he knows Obama’s weak spots

September 9, 2013

Bashar al-Assad speaks to Charlie Rose in Damascus (CBS News)

Charlie Rose interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus over the weekend, Assad's first interview with an American news outlet since 2011. The full interview is to be aired Monday evening; in a clip released this morning and posted below, the Syrian leader made his case for why the United States should not strike Syria. It's nothing surprising, but well worth watching for a glimpse into the country's diplomatic strategy.

Assad seems to betray a nuanced understanding of American politics and of the U.S. debate over strikes -- and where it's weakest. Rather than repeating the arguments his government uses internally, about resistance to the West and an American-Israeli conspiracy, he spoke in the language of American politics. He emphasized what the United  States stands to lose in striking and touched on U.S. concerns about the legacy of Iraq. "What do wars give the United States? Nothing. No political gain, no economic gain, no good reputation," he said, warning that U.S. credibility is at an "all-time low."

Assad also touched on two of the arguments against strikes that have carried the most weight in the United States. He warned that any intervention "would be going to support al-Qaeda and the same people that killed Americans in the 11th of September" -- not totally accurate, as the branch of al-Qaeda working in Syria is distinct from the largely defunct branch behind Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but close enough. He also repeatedly pointed out that "the evidence they have about the chemical story" has not proven definitive or sufficiently convincing for many Americans.

"We expected this administration to be different from [George W.] Bush's administration," Assad said, arguing that President Obama has pursued "the same doctrine."

We don't get a lot of opportunities to see Assad speaking in English and directly to the West. He spoke to the Wall Street Journal in January 2011, and to Barbara Walters that December. But I am always struck by his ability to speak to Westerners in their own mode. He doesn't bluster, as many autocrats make the mistake of doing when they speak to the West.

He doesn't slam his fist on the table or spout the sort of rhetoric that might work well at home but fall flat abroad. He's casual, takes tough questioning in stride and speaks directly to American politics, putting his thumb right on the pressure points of the domestic U.S. debate over whether to strike Syria. This is code-switching of a subtle and very high-stakes sort.

When asked what he could do to assure the United States that chemical weapons will not be used again, Assad artfully dodged the question and made it about the United States, asking why the Obama administration had not presented more evidence. And it worked. It's hard to think of a better interviewer than Charlie Rose, but even he could not return the discussion to Syria's enormous chemical weapons stockpile.

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