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Syrian President Assad Talks To 'Foreign Affairs' Magazine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We'll talk next with a man who has been talking with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Jonathan Tepperman is managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and interviewed the Syrian leader in Damascus. He's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.

JONATHAN TEPPERMAN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Congratulations on the interview. I read it - extremely interesting. I don't want to summarize it too much here, but Assad essentially says nothing is his fault. Israel is behind his troubles, and he believes that in spite of the fragmentation of his country, the Syrian people are still with him. I want to ask, did Assad appear as self-confident as his words to you would suggest?

TEPPERMAN: Yes, Steve, that, in fact, was one of the most striking things about the interview to me. He was filled with bon ami, was extremely polite and solicitous and supremely relaxed throughout the conversation. And when he would speak these wild untruths, which - he had to know that I knew were patently false - he voiced them with unblinking, unshakable confidence. And it was really, really striking. And that said one of two things to me; either he is a spectacularly competent liar and this was all being done for domestic consumption, in which case he's merely a sociopath, or he really believes what he's saying. You know, this is like Hitler in his bunker when the Russians were an hour outside Berlin still insisting to his generals that Germany could win the war.

INSKEEP: Or he's speaking to the world and essentially saying and essentially saying, I'm not going anywhere.

TEPPERMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: Is that the message you think he was sending?

TEPPERMAN: Well, I do think so, and this to me is one of the other big takeaways from the interview. You know, if you've been watching carefully over the last few weeks, the West has started to send signals that it is more open to a compromised solution with Assad about how to end the war. In the past, the U.S. had insisted that Assad had to step down as a precondition to any peace treaty. In the last few weeks, Senator Kerry and others have started to suggest that that's no longer necessary.

INSKEEP: Secretary of State John Kerry, right, right.

TEPPERMAN: Yeah, excuse me. And what all of that suggests is there is a perception in the West that some kind of compromise is now more likely. The Assad that I met made it very clear that such a compromise is an absolute fantasy. It's impossible to imagine because he is convinced that he is winning the war militarily. He is convinced that he is winning the war for the hearts and minds of his people. He is absolutely unrepentant.

I mean, when I asked him five times if he had made any mistakes during the course of the war or if there was anything he'd done that he regretted, he said he literally couldn't think of a single thing. And then when we talked about the specifics of negotiations and how a peace deal would be struck, he insisted that he would be open to talking to anybody and that he would be open to any sort of a deal. But then he completely undermined that by saying that, of course, any change in the political structure of Syria would have to be confirmed by a referendum of the Syrian people. And of course...

INSKEEP: Oh, that he would control.

TEPPERMAN: Exactly. I mean, keep in mind that this is - A - number one, he only controls about a third of his territories, so how you hold a referendum is not clear. Second of all, this is a guy who was reelected just this past June with something like 98 percent of the vote.

INSKEEP: OK, well, interesting situation. So in just about five seconds here, you're telling us that he is saying that he's willing to negotiate as long as it's on his terms.

TEPPERMAN: That's precisely right.

INSKEEP: Mr. Tepperman, thanks very much.

TEPPERMAN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Tepperman is managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and recently completed an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.