Did Syria’s Bashar al-Assad give the Trump administration support for its key argument on the executive order temporarily blocking entry to Syrians, as well as nationals from six other high-risk countries? Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff got the first interview with the beleaguered Syrian dictator since Donald Trump took office, and Assad tells Isikoff that there are “definitely” some terrorists coming through the refugee stream. Before embracing this argument entirely, though, some context should be kept in mind (via The Hill):
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claims in a new interview that there are “definitely” terrorists among the Syrian refugees displaced by his country’s civil war. …
When asked about how many terrorists could also be posing as refugees, Assad maintained that no one knows the exact statistics.
“Nobody knows, because nobody knows any terrorists to give a percentage,” he told the publication. The Syrian president also underscored that “you don’t need a significant number to commit atrocities.”
True, and given the nature of the disarray in Syria — for which Assad himself is largely responsible — it’s certain that the refugee system presents significant and unique risks. However, some definition is probably required to put this statement in proper context. Assad has repeatedly asserted that the entire rebellion against his hereditary regime consists of terrorists and terror sympathizers. That would make almost the entire refugee stream tainted by terrorism, which Assad is smart enough not to claim in an interview with a Western media outlet. The irony is that he’s winning this fight through the assistance of Hezbollah, which is itself a terrorist organization funded by Iran, one of the other six countries on the list for Trump’s travel pause.
The other context for these remarks is that dictators don’t particularly like refugee outflow, as a general rule. The Soviets didn’t set up revolving doors in East Berlin, for instance, and even with the recent rapprochement, Cuba’s regime isn’t exactly friendly to the idea of its subjects fleeing their beneficent care. “For me the priority is to bring those citizens to their country,” Assad tells Isikoff, “not to help them immigrate.” Assad also rejects the idea of “safe zones” despite the displacement of half of Syria’s population. He blames the embargo for the “terrorism” that displaced the populations, and says that a stable Syria under his control is the best “safe zone.” Assad’s stance here is very much self-serving, especially in how he wants to frame the challenge to his power.
That’s also true of how Assad wants the US to assist him. Assad does like Trump’s focus on terrorism, but says that the Americans have to fight ISIS through the authority of his regime. Isikoff points out that Assad allowed Russian troops into the country to fight ISIS, and Assad responds by telling Isikoff that we could send troops too — as long as they were there to defend Syria’s sovereignty, by which Assad clearly means protecting his regime. We know that because most of Russia’s efforts in Syria have been concentrated in the western region of the country, and not in the east where ISIS operates most strongly.
There’s a lot in this interview, but be sure to stick around at least to the fourteen-minute mark, when Isikoff brings up human-rights violations. Assad initially responds by asking how we can ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia, then shifts the attack on America’s human-rights record, and then dismisses the evidentiary value of testimony from former workers at the prison in question. Isikoff presses on throughout the exchange, only to get to the spectacle of a citation of “fake news” from Bashar al-Assad. If you don’t laugh out loud, you don’t have a sense of humor.