Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week issued a stern warning to President Barack Obama, telling CBS News that the US should expect retaliation if the White House moves forward with plans to launch a military strike against Damascus. In an interview with CBS This Morning co-host Charlie Rose, Assad denied that his regime used chemical weapons in an August 21st attack outside Damascus, as the White House has alleged. The embattled president added that military intervention could have serious repercussions for the US, though he declined to say whether retaliation would come directly from Syria or its various allies.
"You should expect everything. Not necessarily from the government," Assad said in the interview, his first with an American television network in nearly two years.
"The government is not the only player in this region," he continued, alluding to his regime's allies in Iran and the militant group Hezbollah. "You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideologies." Assad later suggested that US intervention could trigger terrorist attacks from al-Qaeda or other groups, drawing a parallel to the September 11th attacks nearly 12 years ago.
"Nobody expected the 11th of September," he said. "So... it's difficult for anyone to tell you what is going to happen. It's an area where everything is on the brink of explosion. You have to expect everything."
The interview will be broadcast in full on Rose's eponymous PBS show at 9 PM ET Monday night, one day before Obama is scheduled to make his case for intervention in a nationally televised address. Obama urged the Senate to authorize a limited military strike in Syria last week, following a late August attack that killed an estimated 1,400 people — including hundreds of women and children — according to US intelligence. The US says sarin gas was used in the missile strike, though some remain reluctant to blame Assad outright. Findings from a United Nations investigation are expected to be released later this month, but the report will only identify which chemical agents were used in the attack, not the responsible party.
"not a single shred of evidence"
The White House insists that the Assad regime was behind the attack, pointing to classified intelligence and intercepted communications, but Assad continues to blame the opposition groups that have been trying to overthrow him for more than two years. He repeated these claims in Sunday's interview, telling Rose that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have "not a single shred of evidence" to support their allegations.
"How can you talk about what happened if you don't have evidences?" Assad said. "We're not like the American administration. We're not a social media administration or government. We are the government that deals with reality."
Syria is believed to hold a large stockpile of chemical weapons, though Rose says that Assad would neither confirm nor deny such reports during Sunday's interview. The US, France, and the UK say rebel groups would not have been able to carry out a chemical attack as large as the one that allegedly unfolded last month, while Russia has continued to stand by the Assad regime.
Earlier Monday, Kerry told reporters at a London press conference that the US would abandon plans to strike Syria if Assad hands over his entire stockpile of chemical weapons, though he acknowledged the improbability of that actually happening. Kerry repeated the administration's calls for a limited and "unbelievably small" military strike against Syria, saying that Obama still hopes to strike a political resolution to Syria's ongoing civil war. He declined to say whether Obama would consider launching an attack without support from Congress; the Senate is expected to vote on a resolution this week.
Speaking calmly and quietly, Assad hesitated when asked if retaliation against the US could involve the same chemical weapons he's accused of stockpiling, saying it would depend on whether "the rebels or the terrorists in this region or any other group have it."
"It could happen, I don't know," he added. "I am not fortune teller."
Update 1: Deputy U.S. National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes has responded to Assad's comments, telling Yahoo News that the White House is prepared for possible repercussions, while downplaying the urgency of the Syrian president's threats. "We're prepared for every contingency," Rhodes said. "It's not in his interest to escalate. That would only invite greater risk for him."
Update 2: CBS News has released video of Rose's full interview with Assad, along with the full transcript.