60 Minutes: Assad and Obama on Syria's civil war
During the last week, President Obama's plan for dealing with the Syrian nerve gas attack has changed radically.
The U.S. path toward air strikes has merged into a road of international cooperation to end the crisis. Under Russian pressure, President Bashar al-Assad has offered to surrender his chemical arsenal to international authorities, and the United States, while skeptical, will allow diplomacy an opportunity.
As the crisis has developed, CBS News has been able to talk with both leaders. We spoke with President Obama at the White House. But we'll begin with Charlie Rose's conversation with President Assad last Sunday in Damascus. The Syrian leader ranged from coy to combative. He denied ordering the gas attack and he would not confirm or deny even the existence of chemical weapons in Syria, but he did seem open to a diplomatic solution.
Charlie Rose: Would you give up chemical weapons if it would prevent the president from authorizing a strike? If that is a deal you would accept?
Bashar al-Assad: Again, you always imply that we have chemical weapons.
Charlie Rose: I have to, because that's the assumption of the president. That is his assumption and he's the one who will order the strike.
Bashar al-Assad: It's his problem if he has an assumption. But for us, in Syria, we have principles. We'll do anything to prevent the region from another crazy war. It's not only Syria. Because it will start in Syria--
Charlie Rose: You'll do anything to prevent the region from having--
Bashar al-Assad: The region.
Charlie Rose: --from having another crazy war?
Bashar al-Assad: Yes.
Charlie Rose: You recognize the consequences for you if there is a strike?
Bashar al-Assad: It's not about me. It's about the region.
Charlie Rose: Well, it's about your country. It's about your people--
Bashar al-Assad: Of course, of course. OK, OK. My country and me, we are part of this region.
Charlie Rose: Was there a moment, for you, as you saw the Arab Spring approaching Syria, that you said, "I've seen what happened in Libya, I've seen what happened in Tunisia, I've seen what happened in Egypt. It's not going to happen to Bashar al-Assad. I will fight anybody who tries to overthrow my regime with everything I have."
Bashar al-Assad: No, for one reason. Because the first question that I ask, "Do I have public support or not?" That the first question that I ask as president. If I don't have the public support, whether there's Arab-- what's-- the so-called Arab Spring, it's not spring anyway. But whether we have this or we don't, if you don't have public support, you have to quit. You have to leave. If you have public support in any circumstances, you have to stay. That's your mission. You have to help the people. You have to serve the people. So-- and I never said-- yeah, sorry.
Charlie Rose: No, go ahead. When you say "public support," people will point to Syria and they say, "A minority sect, Alawites, control a majority Sunni population. And it's a dictatorship and they do it because of force of their own instruments of power." That's how-- that's what you have. Not public support for this war against--
Bashar al-Assad: Now it's being--
Charlie Rose: --other Syrians.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah, now you've been-- it's been two years and a half, OK? Two years and a half and Syria is still withstanding against the United States, the West, Saudi Arabia, the richest country in this area, including Turkey. And taking into consideration what your question implies, that even the big part, or the bigger part of the Syrian population against me, how can I withstand 'til today? I'm either superhuman or superman, which is not the case.
Charlie Rose: Or you have a powerful army.
Bashar al-Assad: The army made of the people. It cannot be made of robots. It's made of people, the pe--
Charlie Rose: Surely you're not suggesting that this army is not at your will and the will of your family.
Bashar al-Assad: How can you-- what do you mean by the will of the family?
Charlie Rose: The will of your family.
Bashar al-Assad: If-- if-- if-- if--
Charlie Rose: Your brother is in the military. The military has been at-- I mean, every observer of Syria believe that this is a country controlled by your family and controlled by the Alawites, who are your allies. That's the control.
Bashar al-Assad: If that situation is correct, what you're mentioning, we wouldn't have withstand for two years and a half. We would have disintegration of the army, disintegration of the whole institution in the states, we would have disintegration of Syria.
Charlie Rose: The president's gotten significant criticism because he has not supported the rebels more. So the president has not given enough support to the rebels in the view of many people. And there's criticism that when he made a recent decision to give support it has not gotten to the rebels, because they worry about the composition.
Bashar al-Assad: If the American administration wanted to support al Qaeda, go ahead. That what they ha-- we have to tell them. Go ahead and support al Qaeda. But don't talk about rebels and Free Syrian Army and so on. The majority of fighters now are al Qaeda. If you want to support them, you are supporting al Qaeda. You are creating havoc in the region, and if this region is not stable, the whole world cannot be stable.
Charlie Rose: With respect, sir, you say that the rebels only survived because they have support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the United States and Qatar perhaps--
Bashar al-Assad: No, the difference--
Charlie Rose: And I'm saying that they say--
Bashar al-Assad: No, no, no.
Charlie Rose: --you only survived--
Bashar al-Assad: No.
Charlie Rose: --because you have the support of Russia and Iran and Hezbollah--
Bashar al-Assad: No, the external support can never substitute internal support. Can never, for sure. And the example that you have to look at very well Egypt and Tunisia. They have all the support from the West and from the Gulf and then from the most of the countries in the world. What they don't have support within their country, they couldn't continue more than how many weeks? Three weeks.
Charlie Rose: You and I have talked about this before. And we remember Hama and your father, Hafez al-Assad. He ruthlessly set out to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood. Are you simply being your father's son here?
Bashar al-Assad: I don't know what you mean by ruthlessly, because--
Charlie Rose: You know what happened at Hama.
Bashar al-Assad: I've never heard the war-- soft war. Have you heard about soft war? There is no soft war. War is a war. Any war is ruthless. And when you fight terrorists, you fight them like any other war.
Charlie Rose: So the lessons--
Bashar al-Assad: Sorry.
Charlie Rose: --you have here are the lessons you've learned from your father and what he did in Hama, and-- which it is said m-- and influenced you greatly.
Bashar al-Assad: The-- said what? Sorry.
Charlie Rose: It is said that what your father did at Hama influenced you greatly in terms of your understanding of what you have to do.
Bashar al-Assad: Good question, what would you do as American if the terrorists invading your country from different areas and started killing tens of thousands of Americans--
Charlie Rose: You keep saying these are terrorists, but in fact, it is a popular revolution, people believe--
Bashar al-Assad: No.
Charlie Rose: --against you that was part of the Arab Spring that influenced some of the other countries.
Bashar al-Assad: Revolution should be Syrian. Cannot be revolution imported from abroad.
Charlie Rose: But it didn't start from abroad. It started here.
Bashar al-Assad: Here, but those people that started here, they support the government now. Again that what you don't know. Do you don't know as American, you don't know as a reporter. That's why talking about what happened at the very beginning is completely different from what's happening now. It's not the same. There's very high dynamic things that are changing on daily basis. So it's completely different image. Those people, though, who wanted revolution, they are cooperating with us.
Charlie Rose: I'm asking you again. Is it, in fact, you being your father's son, and you believe that the only way to drive out people is to eliminate them the same way your father did.
Bashar al-Assad: In being independent, yes. In fighting terrorism, yes. In defending the Syrian people and the country, yes.
Charlie Rose: When I first interviewed you, there was talk of "Bashar al-Assad, he's the hope. He's the reformer." That's not what they say anymore.
Bashar al-Assad: Who?
Charlie Rose: People who write about you, people who talk about you, people who analyze Syria and your regime.
Bashar al-Assad: Exactly. So the hope for American is different from the hope of Syrian. For me, I'm the hope of-- I should be the hope of the Syrian, not any other one. Not American, not-- no American, neither French, or anyone in the world. I'm president to help Syrian people. So this question should start from the hope of the Syrian people. And if there's any change regarding that hope, we should ask the Syrian people. Not anyone else in the world.
Charlie Rose: But now they say, their words, a "butcher." Comparisons to the worst dictators ever to walk on the face of the earth. Comparing you to them. Using weapons that go beyond warfare. Everything they could say bad about a dictator, they're now saying about you.
Bashar al-Assad: First of all when you 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 doctor. And you-- thank you for saving the lives. When you have terrorism, you have a war. When you have a war, you always have innocent lives that could be the victim.
Charlie Rose: The eyes of the world have been on Syria. We have seen atrocities on both sides, but on your side as well. They have seen brutality by a dictator that they say--
Bashar al-Assad: OK, so we have to--
Charlie Rose: --put you in a category with the worst.
Bashar al-Assad: Yeah. So we have to allow the terrorists to come and kill the Syrians and destroy the country much, much more? This is where you can be a good president? That's what you imply.
Charlie Rose: But you can't allow the idea that there is opposition to your government from within Syria. That is not possible for you to imagine?
Bashar al-Assad: To imagine that we have opposition?
Charlie Rose: Yes.
Bashar al-Assad: We have it and you can go and meet with them. We have some of them within the government, we have some of them outside the government. They are opposition. We have it.
Charlie Rose: But those are the people who have been fighting against you.
Bashar al-Assad: Opposition is different from terrorism. Opposition is a political movement. Opposition doesn't mean to take armament and kill people and destroy everything. This opposition opposing country or government by behaving by barbecuing head, by eating the hearts of your victim? Is that opposition? What do you call the people who attacked the two towers in the 11th of September? Opposition? Even though they are not American, I know this. But some of them, they have, I think, nationality. I think one of them has American nationality. Do you call him opposition or terrorist? Why should you use a term in the United States and England and maybe other countries and use another term in Syria? This is a double standard that we don't accept.
A day after that interview, the White House scheduled a brief conversation for us with President Obama as the situation was beginning to change, with negotiations led by Russia to secure Syria's chemical weapons.
Scott Pelley: What do you need to see in a diplomatic deal?
President Obama: To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify. And so the importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed. And there are a lot of stockpiles inside of Syria. It's one of the largest in the world. Let's see if they're serious. But we have to make sure that we can verify it and enforce it and if in fact we're able to achieve that kind of agreement that has Russia's agreement and the security council's agreement, then my central concern in this whole episode is result. It doesn't resolve the underlying terrible conflict in Syria. And that I've always said is not amenable to a military solution. We're going to have to get the parties to arrive at some sort of settlement. But this may be a first step in what potentially could be an end to terrible bloodshed and millions of refugees throughout the region that is of deep concern to us and our allies.
Scott Pelley: Is the only agreement you would accept one in which we can be assured that all of Syria's chemical weapons are destroyed?
President Obama: I-- you know, I think it's premature for me to start drafting language. I think, I want to see what exactly is being proposed and in the interim, it is very important for Congress and the American people to recognize that we would not be getting even ticklers like this if it weren't for the fact that we were serious about potentially taking action in the absence of some sort of movement. It's in part humanitarian. Any parent who sees those videos of those children being gassed I think understands what a human tragedy it is.
Scott Pelley: Assad essentially put you on notice. In the interview with Charlie Rose, he said of the United States, "If you strike somewhere, you have to expect the repercussions somewhere else in a different form, in a way that you don't expect." He brought up 9/11 as an example of the kind of thing America did not expect. Do you take that as a threat?
President Obama: Well-- I mean, I think it was intended as a threat. I don't take it as a credible threat in the sense that Mr. Assad doesn't have the capacity to strike us in a significant way. Some of his allies like Iran and Hezbollah do have the capacity to engage in asymmetrical strikes against us. Our intelligence, I think, is very clear that they would not try to escalate a war with us over limited strikes to deal with this chemical weapon issue. Keep in mind, Iran was subjected to chemical weapons use by Saddam Hussein. So the Iranian population thinks chemical weapons are terrible and probably consider what Assad did to be a grave mistake. So I don't think they would start a war with us over that. But what is true is that-- you know, our embassies in the region, U.S. personnel in the region-- they're always potentially vulnerable to asymmetrical attacks. But the truth of the matter is, those threats already exist from a whole range of groups. And we understand what those threats are and take those precautions very seriously.
Scott Pelley: Mr. President, the administration has described evidence to the American people and the world but it hasn't shown evidence. And I wonder at this point, what are you willing to show? What are we going to see in terms of the evidence that you say we have?
President Obama: Well keep in mind what we've done is we have provided unclassified evidence. But members of Congress are getting a whole slew of classified briefings. And they're seeing very directly exactly what we have. Keep in mind, Scott, that this is not a problem that I'm looking for. I'm not looking for an excuse to engage in military action. And I understand deeply how the American people, after a decade of war, are not interested in any kind of military action that they don't believe involves our direct national security interests. I get that. And members of Congress, I think, understand that. But in this situation where there's clear evidence that nobody credibly around the world disputes that chemical weapons were used, that over a thousand people were killed, that the way that these weapons were delivered makes it almost certain that Assad's forces used them, when even Iran has acknowledged that chemical weapons were used inside of Syria. I think the question now is how does the international community respond. And, I think, it is important for us to run to ground every diplomatic channel that we can. There's a reason why I went to Congress in part to allow further deliberation not just here domestically but also internationally. But I think it's very important for us to make sure that we understand this is important. And if the American people are not prepared to stand up for what is a really important international norm, then I think a lot of people around the world will take that signal that this norm is not important.
Scott Pelley: The people aren't with you.
President Obama: Yeah, well, not yet. If you ask the average person, including my household, "Do we need another military engagement?" I think the answer generally is going to be no. But what I'm going to try to propose is that we have a very specific objective, a very narrow military option, and one that will not lead into some large-scale invasion of Syria or involvement or boots on the ground, nothing like that. This isn't like Iraq, it's not like Afghanistan, it's not even like Libya. Then hopefully people will recognize why I think this is so important.
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