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Charlie Rose: ‘Calm’ Assad Denied Possession of Chemical Weapons

September 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Charlie Rose of PBS and CBS got an exclusive interview with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the current tension over the alleged chemical attack on civilians. Rose recounts to Judy Woodruff the efforts it took to arrange, plus Assad's denials of having chemical weapons despite showing willingness to prevent a U.S. conflict.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a closer look at the story that drove the news cycle earlier today, Charlie Rose’s interview with Syrian President Assad. It airs in its entirety on most PBS stations tonight.

However, excerpts like this appeared on CBS This Morning.

CHARLIE ROSE: Everything they could say bad about a dictator, they’re now saying about you.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, Syria: First, the following.

Have a doctor who cut the leg to prevent the patient from the gangrene, if you have to, we don’t call him butcher. We call him a doctor. And you — thank him for saving the lives. When you have terrorism, you have a war. When you have a war, you always — you always have innocent lives that could be the victim of any war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Charlie Rose joins us now.

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Congratulations, Charlie. This was an interview every news organization wanted. How difficult was it to arrange?

CHARLIE ROSE: Very difficult, Judy.

But, in the end, what happened is that I basically said to them, look, for my program, we will do an unedited interview for 53 minutes, an hour, the same thing I did with the president of the United States. And that was acceptable.

They had had some experience in which they felt like an interview had been sort of manipulated. And so, without getting into that, I said I will give you an unedited interview.

What the president says will be on the program. And they agreed to that. And then we have a deal to make — to come to Damascus and do the interview. I only got the approval literally the day before I left. So it wasn’t easy. Lots of conversations took place.

And we went there. I took Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News and my friend and my executive producer the 60 Minutes, with me. CBS provided a lot of help for me in the process of getting to Damascus. We got there. The first airing of the interview is tonight on PBS.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

CHARLIE ROSE: And it was a remarkable experience, in which he said, if I could make this — points, everybody asks me, what is the headline? And there were lots of headlines from the issue, and one didn’t necessarily go further than the other.

But this has come up. There is today — and this is from, I think, The New York Times — a seemingly offhand suggestion by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avert an American attack by relinquishing its chemical weapons, received an almost immediate welcome from Syria, Russia and the United Nations, it is said.

Without knowing any of that, I asked the president of Syria the following: “The president is prepared to strike, and perhaps will get the authorization of Congress or not. The question then is, would you give up chemical weapons if it would prevent the president from authorizing a strike. Is that a deal you would accept?”

He then said to me: “Again, you always imply that we have chemical weapons.”

I say: “I have to because that’s the assumption of the president. That is his assumption. And he is the one who will order the strike.”

He said: “If — it’s his problem if he has an assumption, but for us in Syria, we have principles. We will do anything to prevent the region from another crazy war. It’s not only Syria, because it will start in Syria.”

I say: “You will do anything to prevent the region from having a crazy war?”

He says, “Yes.”

So there seems to be, in this conversation, a recognition by the president, without knowing the developing story, that they would listen to the idea of somehow giving up control of the chemical weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he left that door open. At the same time, he absolutely denied using chemical weapons on the rebels, even denied the existence of chemical weapons in the hands of the regime.

CHARLIE ROSE: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlie, how did you find his demeanor? How did he come across to you? Was he defensive? Was he defiant? What did you see?

CHARLIE ROSE: Neither of these two things.

I thought he was calm. There was no stridency about him. We had a conversation which began with, are you prepared for a strike? Do you expect a strike? We went through everything in terms of some very tough moments about the fact that many people believe he is the worst kind of dictator and that he had used enormously offensive and awful weapons against his own people.

At all times, there was a sense of calm. There was a sense of being conversational. There was a sense of being responsive. So, if he was under, as you would imagine, intense stress, he was neither defiant, nor any other sort of one-word description.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So was there something about him that surprised you? I’m also curious about the atmosphere in the places — place where you were. I recognize you were only there for a short time. The people around him, did you pick up any other signals?

CHARLIE ROSE: Well, they constantly — people around him would say to me, I’m doing this for my country, I love my country, that’s why I’m working here, that kind of thing.

The interesting thing about Syria, the part that I see — and I have to emphasize that I had a very limited view, A., because of time, and, B., because most of my transportation was between where I was staying and where the interview was going to take place.

I didn’t see the evidence that clearly must be there of a country that is in the midst of a war and hears bombs every — and hears explosions every night, and may be expecting to rain down upon it a kind of attack that it has never experienced before. You didn’t get that from the street.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Charlie Rose, a remarkable interview. Congratulations again. And thank you.

CHARLIE ROSE: Thank you, Judy.