An Interview With Evil
Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. (II Corinthians 11:14)
Bashar al-Assad’s remarkable interview with Fox News Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Greg Palkot last week showed a man deluded by his own contradictions. His performance was a stunning demonstration of the transformative nature of evil.
The interview was arranged by Dennis Kucinich, once a Democratic congressman, now a Fox News contributor, who had a relationship with Assad from his days in Congress. At the time the interview was agreed to, an American attack was imminent. By the time the interview was conducted, that situation had changed and Russia had intervened as peacemaker with Assad’s agreement to turn over control of his chemical weapons arsenal. Although Kucinich asked about half of the questions, introductory remarks prior to airing the interview said Kucinich was not representing Fox News nor was he present in the capacity of a journalist. Perhaps his participation was recompense for having secured the interview. Still most of his questions were tough, probing, and relentless in their pursuit of an answer.
The interview is about an hour in length and can be seen online and the text of the interview is also available online. By mutual agreement, the interview, conducted in the Presidential Palace in Damascus, was video-recorded by a Syrian camera crew. But the video was not edited. There were no restrictions on the questions that could be asked nor did Assad see them in advance. His answers were given in English; no translator was present. That he would allow himself to be questioned on the world stage so openly in a foreign language was simply astonishing, revealing a solipsistic confidence that he could plausibly answer any question impromptu.
We are rightly shocked by the evil made manifest in the Boston bombings, the 9/11 attacks, and the wanton killings of last week’s Navy Yard shooting. We expect the perpetrators of such malevolence to look monstrous like Jared Loughner’s smirkingly insane face, or Beowulf’s Grendel, or Humbaba the hideous antagonist of Gilgamesh. We don’t expect the killer of perhaps 1,500 humans, including children – a man responsible for over 110,000 deaths and the displacement of millions – to act like an avuncular gentleman engaged in polite conversation as if the topic were the finer points of American literature versus its British counterpart. Yet that was Assad. Satan, Paul observed, can appear as an angel of light. No doubt his minions, Assad among them, are able to do likewise.
Kucinich began the interview by reminding Assad he has always disputed that Syria possessed chemical weapons. After some Clintonesque parsing of the word “if”, Assad conceded that Russia’s intervention and the agreement to release Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction, was tacit admission that Syria did in fact possess chemical weapons.
Kucinich: We know that President Obama and Secretary Kerry have said in the past that you were lying – that’s their word, not mine – when you said that you didn’t have any chemical weapons. A few days ago, in an interview with Russia Channel 24 you admitted you had chemical weapon stockpiles. Now, I just want to make sure we’re clear before we go forward: do you or do you not have chemical weapons?
President Assad: First of all, regarding what Obama and Kerry said, I dare them to say that we said “no” once. We never said it. We never said no, we never said yes, but we always say it’s a classified issue, we don’t have to discuss it, and if we want to talk about it, we say “if” and “if” means you may have it, you may not. So, this is a blatant lie.
Kucinich: 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.
The interview continued to another point of contention.
Palkot: Let’s go on to the latest breaking news. There’s a lot of breaking news in this region right now, and that’s the just-released UN report on the chemical weapon attack last month in the outskirts of Damascus right now. According to this report, and this is the report you said you were waiting for. You said you didn’t want to hear the US, you didn’t want to hear the UK, you didn’t want to hear France, you want the UN to speak, and they have spoken, and they have said and I quote “there’s clear and convincing evidence that the nerve gas Sarin has been used”, and they base this on environmental, chemical, medical samples, they say the killing happened on a relatively large scale, that killing included children. Do you agree with this assessment?
Assad acknowledged that he had heard about a Sarin gas attack but disputed that the report was backed up by “evidence.” Palkot averred that 40 to 50 eye witnesses had confirmed the attack. Assad’s “yes but” was that he hadn’t discussed the evidence with the UN delegation. Palkot countered that the evidence was confirmed in the UN 38-page report. But, Assad claimed, he hadn’t seen the report. Pinning down Assad is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Palkot tried again:
Palkot: Let’s go hypothetical then. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that this is in fact a war crime, that it is despicable, and that it is a grave violation of international law. If that event happened as they say it did happen, would it be despicable, would it be a violation of international law?
President Assad: That is self-evident of course.
President Assad: Of course, that’s self-evident, it is despicable, and it’s a crime.
The Ping-Pong match continued. Asked if he had seen the videos of children gagging and vomiting on the floor, Assad said they could be faked and that the UN would need to verify blood and soil samples. Palkot responded that the UN had verified samples. Then, according to Assad, the videos must also be verified. More Jell-O.
Palkot changed his line of attack:
Palkot: There’s a last key element to this UN report, and while the UN inspectors did not lay blame, that is they did not place culpability for the attack, there are many experts interpreting this report, some that I’ve spoken to in the last 12 hours, they frankly say this attack looks firmly like an attack coming from your government, from the Syrian government. They point to a few things; they say it was a large amount of gas, Sarin gas, maybe as much as a ton. The rebels could not have had that. They said the type of rocket, an M-14 artillery at 300 millimeters never used by the rebels before, that they needed large vehicles to send these rockets up, the rebels don’t have that, and maybe most importantly they point to the trajectory of the rockets. They say they were able to trace the rockets back from the impact point to where they came from, and in two different occasions, this is according to the UN, they say that the start point was Qasyoun Mountain, the headquarters of the republican guards. What do you say to that?
The UN report (which Assad claimed not to have read) didn’t mention the “republican guards,” Assad asserted, and moreover, any rebel can make Sarin gas, he claimed. In fact, it is so easily made it is called “kitchen gas” because it can be made in a home. Not this kind, Palkot contended. This attack involved a ton of gas launched from multiple rocket launchers of the type in Assad’s army at the launch point.
Follow Assad’s logic in the following response.
President Assad: This realistically cannot be possible. You cannot use the Sarin beside your troops, this is first. Second, you don’t use WMD while you are advancing, you’ve not been defeated, and you’re not retreating. The whole situation was in favor of the army. Third, we didn’t use it when we had bigger problems last year. When they talk about any troops or any unit in the Syrian army that used this kind of weapon, this is false for one reason because chemical weapons can only be used by specialized units. It cannot be used by any other units like infantry or similar traditional units. So, all what you mentioned is not realistic and not true. Definitely, so far as government, we have evidence that the terrorist groups have used Sarin gas and those evidences have been handed over to the Russians. The Russian satellites, since the beginning of these allegations at the 21st of August, they said that they have information through their satellites that the rocket was launched from another area. So, why to ignore this point of view? So, the whole story doesn’t even hold together. It’s not realistic. In one word, we didn’t use any chemical weapons in the Ghouta, because if you want to use it, you would harm your troops, you would have harmed tens of thousands of civilians living in Damascus.
In saying that “chemical weapons can only by used by specialized units” Assad contradicts his previous statement about the simplicity of making Sarin gas in a home.
With the chemical weapons existence and use out of the way, although certainly not at a point of agreement with Assad, the two main issues that dominated the remainder of the interview were the nature of the Syrian uprising – whether or not it was a civil war – and the severity of the government’s response – whether it has been so violent that no end of fighting or peace is possible if Assad remains in power.
Kucinich: One of the notions about this very serious conflict is that it’s a civil war. Would you agree with that characterization that you’re involved in a civil war?
President Assad: No, civil war should start from within the society. Civil war needs clear lines, geographical lines, social lines and sectarian lines, but we don’t have these lines in Syria. Civil war doesn’t mean to have 80 or 83 nationalities coming to fight within your countries supported by foreign countries. What we have is not a civil war; what we have is a war, but it’s a new kind of war.
Kucinich: So, you’re blaming outside interests for the acceleration of war. Now, there’s just some statistics that have come out from IHS James. They’re a defense analyst group. They estimate the opposition as a hundred thousand, 30,000 of which are hardline Islamists sympathetic to the 10,000 al-Qaeda-inspired Jihadists. Are any of these Syrians? Are they all outsiders? Where are they getting their money?
President Assad: First of all, no-one has these precise numbers. This is exaggeration, because most of the Jihadists, when they come to Syria, don’t come through countries or organizations. They just come by plane to neighboring countries and they cross the border like any other one, and they just want to come to Syria for the Jihad with the other Jihadists. So nobody has these numbers. We know that we have tens of thousands of Jihadists, but we are on the ground, we live in this country. What I can tell you is 80, and some say 90 – it is difficult to be precise, you don’t have clear and precise data – 80 to 90% of the rebels or terrorists on the ground are al-Qaeda and their offshoots.
This was important dialog in the interview. Middle East observers, at least those in the West, believe the Syrian uprising was a continuation of what started in Tunisia, spread to Libya, Egypt, and Yemen – whose leaders were toppled – and erupted as civil wars in Syria and Bahrain. Because the government crackdown in Syria was much harsher than Bahrain, it gained momentum and spread. This drew foreign fighters into the conflict, hoping to topple a secular government and replace it with an Islamic one. Escalation and expansion ensued, although the numbers of foreigners fighting are a minority, nothing like the 80% to 90% figure Assad asserts.
The Syrian Free Army is as concerned about the infiltration of al-Qaeda as Assad. The SRA ambushed and killed the top al-Qaeda leader and his escorts as they crossed the Turkish border into Syria.
Palkot pressed the civil war claim:
Palkot: … move back just two and a half year ago, that was the first protest here in this country. People said that was still a sign that people were unhappy, your own Syrian people, about your move to democracy, and that was simply what they were asking for: more democracy, more reform. They weren’t even asking for you to step down at the time. Critics will say you moved in too hard, too fast, with tanks, targeting protestors, torturing, etc. That is the critique of yours, and once again, missed another chance. How do you feel about that, two and a half years on?
More double-talk from Assad:
President Assad: Let’s ask a very simple question: if we want to oppress those people because we don’t accept their requests, why did the President himself – I said in one of my speeches at the very beginning of the conflict – why did I say publically that those people have legitimate demands? This is first. Second, if we are going to use the force, why did we change the constitution? Why did we change the law? Why do we have now more than 15 new political parties in Syria? Why did we change so many laws that they asked for? Because we knew it wasn’t about democracy. If they asked for democracy, how they did kill some of those people – I’m not generalizing – some demonstrators demonstrated for the reasons you mentioned, but some others they killed soldiers and killed policemen in the first week of the conflict. What is the relation between asking for democracy and killing and assassinating? So, we have to be very precise and differentiate between people who ask for democracy and terrorists. Part of those people who were opposing the government at the very beginning, today they support the government against the terrorists, because they asked for reform, but they didn’t ask for terrorists. So, you’re talking about two completely different situations between the beginning of the conflict and today. So, we’re still moving forward in the path of democracy, and part of the solution that I just mentioned few minutes ago when we sit around the table, the Syrian people will say what is the best constitution, what is the best political system. Do they want it parliamentarian, presidential, quasi-presidential, and so on. What laws do they want? Everything! So, it’s not the president who is going to set. If the people want to set up their own system, this is democracy.
Palkot attempts an end run around this response.
Palkot: Did you back your tactics in this war? A year ago, we stood in Homs, one of your great cities, and we watched as your artillery which was lined out around the outskirts of the city pound again and again relentlessly the center of the city. You say you’re going for the enemy, you say you’re going for the terrorists, but that – some would call it indiscriminate shelling – has left many, many civilians dead and, frankly, left that city, and many of your other great cities like Aleppo and others, in ruins. I mean, is this the way to go after, if you think that there are some terrorists out there, the terrorist enemies of your state?
Wrapping up the interview, Palkot made a good case that the Syrian conflict now has the attention of the international community and that, for the first time in 30 months, there may be a way forward through negotiations with representatives of the Free Syrian Army. Palkot asked Assad if he was “in” until the end or would he step aside if doing so would bring peace.
“We are going to have a free election next year in May 2014,” Assad said. Anyone may also choose to run, he said. But that wasn’t the question.
Palkot: Mr. President, as a reporter, I just want to tell you what I see as I travel around the country. I have seen this crisis going on. Right now, looking as you do at your country with maybe 60% or 70% of your territory out of your control, and maybe 40% of your population out of your control; six million people are displaced; almost third of your country have been displaced by this war. We talk about the death toll and those who were injured. Do you see any way back, do you see any way that the people could again be behind you in totality? Do you see anything that you could do at this point to make up for these two and a half years of horror, bloody grinding war which this country had been put through?
When the mythological Pandora was given her mystical box she was told not to open it. But open it she did and all the evils it contained escaped to afflict the world.
The Syria war is like Pandora’s Box. Assad’s army has unleashed evil, mostly on civilians. Jihadists have been drawn into the maelstrom bringing their monstrous inhumanities. Video images I’ve seen show bound captives beheaded by children, their childish innocence stolen by foreign fighters who chanted encouragement from the sideline. Christian priests have been decapitated. Syrian soldiers have had their chests cut open, their hearts and livers removed, and those organs eaten before a camera, leaving me to wonder if a person capable of such heinous acts was still a member of the human race. Can a country that has experienced these atrocities ever return to “normal” even if Assad were to step aside?
As the contents of Pandora’s wondrous box escaped, a compassionate god in the Greek pantheon intervened to let her shut the lid and retain the last of its contents – the spirit of hope.
Would that Syria is as fortunate.