Dissecting CNN’s Interview with Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour just interviewed Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari on live TV. It was fascinating television, but two questions popped into my mind immediately after the interview – what did we learn, and how could Amanpour have done better?

Note – the transcript and full video have not been made available online yet, so I’m summarizing, not quoting, my own impression of what happened.

Amanpour started the interview by asking somewhat of a silly question – basically, Mr. Ambassador, the US is about to go to war with you. How badly will it hurt the Syrian military after it’s pounded by Tomahawk missiles?

Ja’afari didn’t answer. He said he was a diplomat trying to put out fires, His non-answer then gave him the floor to spout off the regime’s talking points which are already familiar to anyone covering this conflict.

Amanpour’s silly question had other repercussions. Ja’afari basically stopped listening to Amanpour’s questions, as he sensed that the questions were designed to lecture him. And he was right in that assumption – Amanpour seemed to be more focused on lecturing Ja’afri than in getting him to actually answer questions. She framed the entire interview, for instance, by saying that Assad’s cronies were filling the airwaves, trying to get their spin out, because they were afraid of being devastated by airstrikes, a problem of their own making.

I don’t have a problem with Amanpour for taking Ja’afari to task for being a lying snake. Ja’afari is a lying snake. But instead of badgering the witness, Amanpour should have challenged Ja’afari on the new lies that came out in his interview. She could have challenged him on the substance of what he said, catching him in his own traps in the process.

And there were a bunch of lies to catch. For instance, Ja’afari was more interested in talking about the March chemical attack in Khan al Assal, Aleppo, than the August 21st attack in Damascus. Ja’afari’s position was that France, the UK, and the United States were blocking the UN from investigating the site of the attack. This is patently false. Furthermore, Ja’afari said that that same coalition decided that UN inspectors in Syria would only be investigating whether a chemical attack took place, and not who did it.

So what really happened? As I’ve pointed out, before the August 21st chemical attack, the Khan al Asal incident was the most complicated and deadly of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. First, there was compelling evidence that the victims of the attack were suffering from chemical inhalation. Secondly, there was another attack, one that the regime (and, for whatever reason, therefore most of the media) has never acknowledged. At the exact same time as the attack in Khan al Asal, an opposition stronghold was gassed outside of Damascus, right on the front lines of battle, in a town called Otaybah that the regime had been trying to retake. The Syrian regime and Russia have never wanted the UN inspectors to visit anywhere except Khan al Asal, despite the fact that UN members wanted to explore Otaybah, and other claimed chemical weapons sites.

These facts, which have escaped the media for the most part, are just some of the reasons why the claims of Russia and Assad that the Syrian rebels used sarin that day do not hold water.

Amanpour missed this, of course. She also missed that it was the Syrian government that was blocking the UN inspectors from doing ANYTHING inside Syria. Amanpour also missed that it was Russia that was adamant that the UN inspectors, if they were given access, didn’t point the finger at the culprit, a demand that the rest of the UN agreed to, grudgingly, because without that concession there would be no hope of inspections of any kind.

In other words, the interviewer wasn’t listening to the interviewee, and vice versa. If Amanpour stopped pestering Ja’afari with dumb questions for a minute, she could have caught him in a lie and made him look deceitful (he is deceitful). Instead, they both looked like they were talking past each other while advancing agendas.

Amanpour then basically asked the same question that she aswked at the beginning of the interview. She finally got Ja’afari to say that the Syrian government is in no way capable of standing up to the United States. This, I promise you, is news to literally no one. I’m not sure why it was pursued, but Amanpour, after the interview, gave us a clue. She told Wolf Blitzer that it amazed her that the Syrian government doesn’t realize that Obama, Cameron, and Hollande don’t want to intervene in Syria, and so this is the Syrian government’s own fault for forcing their hands. She’s right. But the whole point of the interview was to prove to Ja’afari that, when his military bases are on fire, it was all his fault? As an interested viewer, I was far more interested in watching an interview with Ja’afari than watching him be lectured. Believe me, Tomahawk missiles will sting more than Amanpour’s scolding.

Amanpour spent the rest of the interview postulating that the US claims about chemical weapons use are the only true version of events. Ja’afari postulated his own version of the “truth.” Amanpour would have been better off trying to get some evidence out of Ja’afari to support his claims. If she had, it would have been obvious to the viewers just how empty the claims of the Syrian regime remain, despite all the fakery and lies postulated by the regime. In other words, we could have heard more than just Assad’s talking points.

Amanpour cut the interview short after Ja’afari made his most interesting points. He spoke about how foreign powers were training militants in both Turkey and Jordan to act against Syria. We’ve heard those same reports, so I’d be curious to know whether this was a Syrian intelligence assessment, or the regime parroting these reports and spinning them to make Assad look like the victim. Some careful questioning might have been able to get some additional information out of Ja’afari. After all, even well-trained diplomats can reveal more than they want to when they are flustered and on the defensive. Unfortunately, Amanpour was out of time. It would have been better if she had talked for one or two minutes less so we could have heard Ja’afari speak rather than Amanpour. After all, it’s her station, and I can hear her talk whenever I want.

Amanpour ended the interview by asking Ja’afari how he could sleep at night. Isn’t the answer obvious? I’m a little disappointed that Ja’afari didn’t turn the question around on Amanpour. Except that that would just turn Amanpour’s bad journalism into a point scoring session for the Syrian regime.

And besides, I think a careful analysis of the interview can score points against them both.


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