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Assad: Weapons? Take Them

And as Quickly as Possible, He Says

Washington — Syrian President Bashar Assad said Wednesday that he’s committed to relinquishing Syria’s chemical arsenal without condition and as quickly as possible in an interview intended to counter portrayals of him as a bloodthirsty dictator behind the world’s most urgent conflict.

In the hourlong interview with Fox News, Assad appeared as a mild-mannered bureaucrat explaining in fluent English why he’s waging an unfortunate but necessary war against al-Qaida extremists, the same ones who fought U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He bristled at calling the rebel forces fighting to topple him as “opposition” and claimed that 80 percent to 90 percent are al-Qaida-linked terrorists.

“Opposition doesn’t mean to carry weapons and kill people, innocents, and to destroy schools, destroy infrastructure,” Assad said. Later in the segment, he added, “We’re against violence, but what would you do when terrorists attack your country?”

He didn’t dispute U.N. findings that sarin gas was used in a deadly Aug. 21 attack, but he blamed it on the rebel side, which he said is made up of jihadists who’ve streamed into Syria from more than 80 countries.

The wide-ranging interview was conducted by the network’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, Greg Palkot, and former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, who’s a commentator for the network and has met Assad on previous occasions. Last week, Assad granted an interview to Charlie Rose of CBS and PBS but canceled an interview he set up with George Stephanopoulos of ABC.

Analysts say the strategy behind Assad’s media blitz goes beyond simply seeking to avoid a U.S. strike in retaliation for the deadly chemical attacks. The broader mission is to convince the West that no matter how brutal his regime appears to outsiders, the alternative is worse. At every opportunity, Assad and his allies drive home the fact that the rebel movement is dominated by Islamist militants who’ve carried out beheadings, car bombings and other terrorist acts the regime knows will strike a chord with an American audience.

Assad, as he did in the earlier CBS interview, pointedly mentioned an incident where a rebel leader was captured on video cutting the heart from a dead Syrian soldier and taking a bite from it.

At another point in the Fox interview, he referred to the United States as “the greatest country in the world.”

“He’s saying, ‘I’m Westernized, I’m quiet spoken, I’m not a screaming jihad, and I’m the devil you can work with,’ “ said Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and a former CBS News correspondent in the Middle East. “And that’s what American foreign policy has been about for decades — working with the devil you can to keep out the ones you don’t want.”

Pintak, who had interviewed the late Saddam Hussein, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and several other dictators, said Assad’s understated persona and background as an eye doctor who was educated in England is a benefit to his media campaign. His clean-shaven, business-suited image makes for a stark juxtaposition with bearded, gun-toting rebels waving the black flag of militant Islamists.

“It’s public diplomacy at its best,” Pintak said. “It’s fascinating to watch someone who operates in a completely controlled media environment being so deft at managing his own image in the West.”

It also helps Assad’s cause, analysts note, that the American public doesn’t need much persuading when it comes to staying out of Syria’s bloody civil war. Poll results repeatedly have shown how unpopular any form of U.S. intervention is, even after a steady flow of amateur videos showing the death and suffering in a conflict that’s already claimed more than 100,000 lives and forced millions from their homes. Americans overwhelmingly oppose not only direct U.S. strikes, survey results show, but indirect help such as arming the rebels who are fighting Assad’s forces.

Assad clearly was aware of those polls, saying in response to a question from Kucinich that Obama should listen to the American people.

“Assad is watching that the support was not there, and he’s seeing that there are many doubters,” said Jamal Dajani, an award-winning Arab journalist who advises Internews, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower local media. “He knows that most of the public knows that the Iraqi experience backfired — sending in troops to remove a dictator only to end up with something worse.”

Although Secretary of State John Kerry and some members of Congress — most notably Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain — try to paint the extremist threat as overblown, it’s clear to close observers of the conflict that al-Qaida-style extremists make up the most effective, if not the largest, rebel factions — a position Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, also made in an interview that aired Sunday.

That’s the message Assad wants to hammer home to counter media portrayals that have painted his regime as responsible for vicious offensives, widespread arrests and crackdowns on all forms of opposition.