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World

'Yahoo News' Reporter Interviews Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a journalist who had a rare conversation with the embattled Syrian president. Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff sat down with Bashar al-Assad, the first in-depth interview the Syrian president has given to an American reporter since President Trump's inauguration. They spoke about Trump, about the civil war in Syria and allegations of extrajudicial killings at a Syrian military prison. Michael Isikoff joins us now from London. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: The Syrian president has done more interviews with American journalists before but not many. Why did you think he granted you this interview?

ISIKOFF: You know, it's hard to say. I think he did want to give an interview post-Trump, also post-Aleppo. Clearly the Syrian army has gained in the civil war thanks to its Russian allies. Assad is feeling emboldened. He's no longer facing a U.S. president who's demanding that he step down from power. So he's kind of flexing his muscles in a way.

SIEGEL: He told you in the interview that he has not spoken with President Trump or anyone in the Trump administration but that what he's heard from the new administration is promising. What's promising for Assad?

ISIKOFF: Well, what he said was Trump's focus on fighting terrorism is what he finds promising. He did indicate in a very sort of cautious and maybe cagey way that he might welcome U.S. troops into Syria to fight ISIS, provided that they work with him as well as his allies, the Russians.

SIEGEL: The Syrian regime has conducted its own terror. It's killed more Syrians than ISIS has. Does he acknowledge any of that?

ISIKOFF: Yeah, of course. As he sees it, he views all his opponents, all his enemies as terrorists, and therefore every step they take in this extremely bloody war is about fighting terrorism and, as he views it, saving his country.

SIEGEL: We're going to hear a couple of clips from your interview. You asked Bashar al-Assad about this week's damning report by Amnesty International. Dozens of prisoners and former guards at Sednaya Prison say that there have been thousands of secret executions of prisoners under higher orders at that military facility.

Yesterday on this program, we heard a chilling account by a former inmate there. And I want to play what Assad said to you about the Amnesty International report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BASHAR ASSAD: It's a shame for such an organization to publish a report without a shred of evidence. They say it's based on interviews.

ISIKOFF: Yes.

ASSAD: What about the document? What about the concrete evidence? Nothing...

ISIKOFF: Interviews with four former prison officials and guards, three former Syrian judges, three doctors at the prisons...

ASSAD: It means nothing.

ISIKOFF: It means nothing.

ASSAD: It's interviews - no, no...

SIEGEL: And then he invoked the term fake news to describe the Amnesty report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASSAD: You can forge anything these days, and we're living in a fake news era, as you know.

SIEGEL: Did you get the impression that you were interviewing a man who believes that?

ISIKOFF: Wow, that's a tough question to answer - what he believes. Look; he clearly doesn't want to hear anything that impugns his government. And even when I confronted him with some of the damning details in that report as well as this lawsuit that was filed last week accusing nine of his senior officials of human rights crimes, he just dismisses it all as propaganda.

SIEGEL: Mike Isikoff, very broadly, there's been an idea floated speculatively - I don't know how seriously in Washington - that the next step in Syria would be for the U.S. to concentrate as it has been on ISIS along with other allies and that the Syrian government and Russia would join in that same effort. Did you get the sense that that broad notion is somehow attractive to Bashar al-Assad?

ISIKOFF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think given that he acknowledges talking to Putin, one can imagine that Assad and Putin are in league together here, trying to bring Donald Trump around to this position - dropping all the talk about getting rid of Assad, dropping any concerns about the horrific human rights abuses inside Syria, dropping any concern about the plight of Syrian refugees - 4.8 million - and working together to fight the common terrorist enemy.

SIEGEL: Michael Isikoff, thanks for talking with us today.

ISIKOFF: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Yahoo News chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff was talking with us about his interview with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.