By the time Bill Neely joined NBC News in 2013, he had already begun the leg work that would, this week, finally land him a huge exclusive. “I travelled to Syria to cover the war five years ago,” Neely told TVNewser Thursday afternoon from Beirut. “And on each of my 10 trips I pushed for an interview with President Assad. It finally came through.”
Neely’s one-on-one with Syrian President Bashir al-Assad lasted a full 43 minutes, and covered topics ranging from ISIS, Syria’s civil war and the U.S. presidential election. “Nothing was off the table,” Neely said Thursday on MSNBC. Assad even weighed in on Donald Trump, saying he was no less experienced a world leader than Barack Obama was at the time he won the presidency.
“He was relaxed, in his own residence and office…high above Damascus, in a building where generations of Syrian leaders had worked,” Neely said. “As with every interview Assad gives to foreign news media, it was filmed by the presidential press office. Our producers and executives were present at all times, and we maintained control of the material at all times.”
To prepare for the interview, Neely said he watched video and read transcripts of “nearly every interview (Assad) has given in recent years. I had suggestions (for questions) from across the team at NBC News.” Neely asked 81 questions, including the one on many people’s minds: “I put it to him that he was a brutal dictator with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands. He answered that. He didn’t flinch. I suspect this is a man who has heard all these questions before.”
Neely also challenged Assad on the death of journalist Marie Colvin, whose family filed a lawsuit in a U.S. court alleging Assad’s regime of targeted her to stop her from covering government atrocities. “Marie Colvin was a friend of mine,” Neely told TVNewser. “And although it seems unfair to pick one death from among 400,000, it was the death of a civilian by indiscriminate fire, allegedly from his forces.”
But Assad dismissed any suggestion he was responsible for her death. “He was clearly familiar with her death and seemed to believe that because she had entered the country illegally and was in a rebel held area she was fair game. I challenged him on this.”
What did Neely make of the man himself after waiting five years to interview him? “Aha,” he told us. “Watch the interview and make up your own mind. He was above all confident of his position and of victory.”
More of the interview will air tonight on NBC Nightly News, and on MSNBC.