Speaking to CBS’ 60 Minutes in an interview that aired Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad denied widespread reports of government attacks on civilians and refused to acknowledge how long his family has run the country.
When CBS’ Charlie Rose asked him to enumerate the number of years for which he and his father, Hafez Assad, successively served as president, he dodged, asking, “Is it a calculation of years or public support?” Instead, he claimed, the true metric of legitimacy is public support, and that “it’s not a family rule.”
He compared his succession to President George W. Bush, insisting that “it does matter, are they father and son.” The Assad family has controlled Syria’s presidency since 1971, constituting a dynasty that marked its 44th anniversary earlier in March.
According to Assad, he would be willing to give up power “when I don’t have public support.” Conveniently, he stated that “I have direct contact with the people,” and that “I sense” continued support from Syrians. (RELATED: Oil Man May Be The Shady Bridge Between ISIS And Syrian Government)
Meanwhile, over the weekend the provincial capital of Idlib fell to Islamist rebels — another lost bulwark in Assad’s struggle to hold territory against Islamic State and other groups.
The Syrian civil war has lasted for four years, beginning with peaceful protests in 2011. Violent government suppression of those protests fostered an increasingly chaotic mix of Islamist rebels, some funded by Middle Eastern states interested in removing Assad from power. One Islamist faction arising early in the war later merged with an Iraqi al-Qaida affiliate to create the Islamic State terror group.
Assad’s critics say he has exacerbated the opposition’s radicalization, by deliberately releasing jihadi prisoners onto the battlefield in the early days of the war. In a recent article entitled “Assad Plays America the Fool … Again,” Aaron Zelin and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explain how “Assad’s military focused on mainly fighting the mainstream rebels while only occasionally targeting the radicals,” aware that “jihadis would also move against the rebels, indirectly helping the regime.”
In the interview, Assad ignored these allegations, saying of the Syrian people, “They could go support the other side. They didn’t. Why?”
Assad has also faced accusations of perpetrating mass atrocities against civilians, including children. In Sunday’s interview, he denied the use of chlorine gas and ultra-destructive “barrel bombs,” going so far as to say that “there is no such thing called barrel bombs.”
He also asserted that “Syria, Iran and Russia see eye-to-eye” on the requirements for an end to the conflict, praising Russia and Iran for their humanitarian interest in securing “the future of the world.” Criticizing the United States’ “policy of isolation,” he said that the United States would prefer a “puppet” rather than a genuine partner for dialogue.
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