My discussions with Syrian officials confirmed they're unable to change. But it increasingly seems they may not need to.
- By Sam HellerSam Heller is a non-resident fellow at The Century Foundation
You can only assume the Syrian government feels pretty great right now. The government and its allies have encircled rebels in the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the country’s prewar economic center. It has almost entirely consolidated its control over Syria’s strategically vital west, including the area surrounding the capital of Damascus. It enjoys the reliable backing of its Iranian and Russian allies. And as of Nov. 8, the United States has a president-elect who has made it explicitly clear that he is uninterested in regime change in Damascus.
Dialogue between Syria and the West, suddenly, is a live possibility. Whether it will be productive is another question entirely.
In October, back when the leader of the free world was only implicitly uninterested in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, I traveled to Damascus to attend a Syrian government-backed conference. The conference organizers hailed the event as a chance for Syrians to present another side of the war and to open a new dialogue with the West. They invited journalists from top American and British news outlets, as well as political analysts like myself.
But there was a disconnect at play. The medium — the conference itself, the contact with the top echelons of Syrian officialdom, and the opportunity for attendees to stay on and report from inside Syria — signaled an attempt by the Syrian government to appeal to Western opinion and demonstrate its openness. But the substance was quite different. From the combative, uncompromising tone of the conference’s official speakers to the elite, clubby atmosphere surrounding the event, the impression given was of a defiant regime that, even after five years of war, remains unchanged.
Instead of putting a reasonable, sympathetic face forward, it was as if the Syrian government had invited us in to tell us: “Oh, no. We are exactly who you think we are.”
In between panel discussions on topics such as “The Media War During the Syrian Crisis” and “The Effects of Sanctions on the Lives of Ordinary Syrians,” the conference afforded attendees access to senior Syrian officials, commercial elites, and representatives of government-approved Syrian civil society. Conference organizers also separately arranged an extended question-and-answer session with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and a set of smaller audiences with President Bashar al-Assad himself.
But for all the talk about dialogue, the conference speakers took a proudly unrepentant tone. In the very first panel discussion, “The Background of the War in Syria,” panelists such as presidential advisor Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban and senior intelligence officer Col. Samer Breidi described how Syria had fallen victim to an international conspiracy of Islamist extremists, enemy states, and their media lackeys. They denied any errors or culpability by the Syrian government, stretching back to the very start of the country’s crisis in 2011. The Syrian government itself, in their telling, was largely blameless and misunderstood.
Shaaban complained that the last time she had spoken to the U.K.’s Channel 4 — whose reporters were present in the conference audience — they had asked only accusatory questions. “They asked, ‘How can you support such a regime?’” she said. “There was no effort to try to understand.”
(The conference was conducted under Chatham House rules, but an organizer assured me I could identify and quote the Syrian officials who presented.)
In the question-and-answer session following the first panel discussion, a Syrian audience member asked earnestly for the state’s version of events in southern Daraa province in March 2011. In an incident widely considered the spark for the country’s uprising, regime security services detained and tortured 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti, spurring local protests that met with state violence and eventually spread nationwide.
“We want the real story on the Daraa children,” she said. “We want to know what our story is, the correct story. At least we can give our local media this story, and they can mention it so people know.”
Breidi, the senior intelligence officer, told her the government had hastened at the time to form a committee to investigate the alleged detention and torture. “It reached the conclusion that the issue didn’t exist,” he said.
In the next session, “Syrian Foreign Relations During the Crisis,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad spoke of how he had been on hand for Eastern Europe’s anti-communist revolutions in 1989. As a representative of the International Union of Students, he said, he had witnessed how false reports of a student demonstrator’s death had galvanized protests in Czechoslovakia. “I’ve seen how a few lies can bring down governments and change millions of lives,” he said.
According to the Syrian government, Syria has been targeted because it refuses to comply with the West’s pro-Israel agenda. Syria’s terrorist enemies are largely foreign extremists introduced by a neo-Ottoman Turkish government, and backed by Saudi Arabia, a font of regressive Wahhabism. The United States is mostly unserious about fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and it is in fact relying on terrorist proxies to attack the Syrian government.
The Syrian government has already attempted to resolve the crisis politically, the state representatives at the conference said, with a roadmap for reform laid out by Assad in January 2013. (The 2013 plan entails the formation of a unity government, the drafting of a new constitution to be affirmed in a referendum, and then new parliamentary elections.) The government remains determined to recapture the entirety of Syria and, in the meantime, has tried to demonstrate its resilience and legitimacy through the ongoing, mostly normal function of state institutions. The government readily highlights the relative normality of life in Damascus and elsewhere, how it has kept the country’s utilities running, and how it has continued to pay public sector salaries, even to residents of areas that have fallen into insurgent hands.
And although the government claims to want international security cooperation and economic normalization, it is clear that change is incumbent on everyone else — not the Syrian state and certainly not in response to foreign dictates.
Some younger Syrians in attendance — not themselves of the government but within its orbit — were able to articulate pro-government concerns in more appealing, introspective terms. But when it came to the more senior official class, including Assad himself, there seemed to be little effort to tailor their arguments to a Western audience.
It’s hard to know why the government took such a hard line. It may have been meant as a show of strength, a demonstration to Western elites that their attempts to bend or break Syria have failed. And it’s possible the government was more interested in convincing a Western delegation to attend than actually winning it over, if only to demonstrate its international legitimacy to its local, Syrian constituency. (Syrian media were excluded, but it’s not as if the event was a state secret.)
Or maybe some officials just didn’t care. Foreign Minister Moallem, for one. Conference organizers had been emphatic that the event was not a government propaganda exercise. But when the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins asked Moallem how Syria could make its case to governments that had cut all diplomatic ties, the minister suggested he understood things otherwise. “We don’t need to convince governments; we need to convince public opinion,” Moallem said. “But that’s why you’re here. Say the truth. Your role is to do your part to help us.”
Moallem proceeded to nonchalantly bat away journalists’ questions, including ones about regime brutality against rebel-held areas. Asked by the New York Times’s Anne Barnard about the government’s harsh tactics in Aleppo, he replied, deadpan, “I am not Jesus Christ. You hit me in my,” gesturing to his cheek, “and I …” He didn’t bother to finish the sentence.
But my sense from the conference was that the Syrian government was sincerely trying to win us over. We were given the red-carpet treatment, from our reception at the VIP hall at the border crossing with Lebanon, where our passports were collected and stamped at our leisure, to a sumptuous dinner alongside Damascus’s power elite at the Sheraton. And so, when officials adopted a particularly jarring line of argument, it sometimes seemed as if they just didn’t understand how to talk to outsiders.
When Western conference attendees visited President Assad in his home, he was gracious and welcoming, and, even under some tough questioning, he remained engaged and personable. But the actual content of what he told the assembled journalists and analysts wasn’t new. It was mostly a friendlier, more articulate version of the government’s standard lines.
In what I thought was inadvertently revealing, President Assad closed our group sit-down by discussing the “very dangerous” media game being played against Syria and giving the example, unprompted, of coverage of the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the “White Helmets.” “They’re al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said. “They just changed shape.”
That the White Helmets are the humanitarian arm of al Qaeda is something he’s said before to friendlier journalists — he said essentially the same thing to Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda several weeks previous — and it’s a meme that has gained currency in government-sympathetic media.
Now, disclosure: Several years ago, I held a research job with a contractor that trained Civil Defense teams. So I knew that while Civil Defense operations in Syria’s rebel-held areas sometimes oblige it to engage with military actors, its first-responder work is independent of local armed groups and basically a pure humanitarian good. A handful of local teams have done dubious things, but the case against Civil Defense mostly amounts to pointing out the fact that they are pro-opposition Syrians who pull civilians from bombed-out rubble in rebel-held areas where jihadis also happen to live.
I think that for the mass Western audience that has seen video of Civil Defense teams rescuing children from buildings flattened by the Syrian air force, Assad’s argument is obviously unsympathetic. That Assad would raise this talking point unbidden raises serious questions about the extent to which he understands the debate on Syria outside a pro-government echo chamber.
Syrian officials’ unapologetic rhetoric and the atmosphere in and around the conference — coffee breaks populated by Damascus’s public-private upper crust, interjections from some Syrian attendees that seemed less like questions than florid demonstrations of party loyalty — suggested a system that has not learned or adapted during the last five years.
But such intransigence isn’t necessarily delusional — in fact, there’s reason to think that continuity is itself the point, part of a deliberate domestic political strategy. On the streets of Damascus, the government seems to have successfully maintained the prewar authoritarian order. The only difference is that now Damascenes have also been traumatized by years of deprivation and war.
The cult of personality around Assad is still powerful. Sometimes it can seem even more potent than before the war, if only because his portrait is seemingly hung on every one of the checkpoints blanketing the city.
Assad himself emphasized the constitutional and institutional limits on his authority in his meeting with me and my colleagues, leaving it to others to make the case for his personal centrality to the Syrian state. Miqdad, for instance, told conference attendees that “without [Assad], there is no Syria.” Billboards and signs across the city feature Assad’s picture next to slogans like, “A nation in one man,” or sometimes, “For you, Assad” and “Assad’s Syria.” A refrigerator repairman in the Damascus suburb of Jeremana told me how Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, “is our father, and we’re his children.”
And doing man-on-the-street interviews in Damascus — watching gracious, welcoming locals go blank when I told them I was a journalist — was a reminder that there has been no weakening of the city’s old limits on speech or its security-state paranoia.
I felt a little queasy trying to convince polite but obviously uncomfortable Damascenes to talk to me about the economy and conditions in their area or watching them squirm as my Ministry of Information minder showed them an official letter and assured them they were allowed to speak.
Not everyone declined to talk, though. And even as the in-and-out presence of the minder and the generally repressive atmosphere made it impossible to accept everything people said at face value, it’s not as if all of it was false. And these ordinary Syrians on the streets of Damascus made many of the government’s points more cogently than any conference panel.
The conference’s session on the Syrian economy — “The Effects of Sanctions on the Lives of Ordinary Syrians” — was populated almost exclusively by members of the merchant class that has been assimilated into the regime. But outside the conference auditorium, it was possible to talk to ordinary people trying to get by in a broken economy cut off from the broader world. They could tell you how they had to work two or three jobs to provide for their children or how the collapse of the Syrian lira had made everyone poor.
“They calculate everything on the dollar,” said a man working in a menswear store in Damascus’s Saroujeh neighborhood. He pointed out everything he had to buy that had gotten more expensive, from shirt fabric to cardboard shirt stays. “It’s regular people who get it in the end.”
The toll of the violence on loyalist communities is visible everywhere, from a hastily rebuilt school that was destroyed by a car bomb to locals who will tell you about their friends and family who’ve died fighting rebels or been killed by indiscriminate shelling.
A teenager working at a translation office in Jeremana told me he had spent nearly all of 2014 at home because of shelling from the rebel-held suburbs of eastern Ghouta. “Every day the [shells] would fall, one after another,” his co-worker said.
An electrician working across the hall told me how local children had, disconcertingly, acclimated to war. “They hear a noise, and they can tell you what it is,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘A rocket hit the army.’ ‘That’s Dushka fire.’ How do you know that? Aren’t you in the third grade?”
And even as the Syrian government has reinforced a fundamentally oppressive political order, it is impossible to walk around Damascus and not notice the active participation of women in social and economic life, as well as the obvious diversity by sect and religiosity. These aspects of Damascus life are not everything — but they’re not nothing, either. And they cast a harsh, unfavorable light on the elements of the Syrian opposition that have embraced explicit sectarian chauvinism.
The Assad regime’s accomplishments in governance during the civil war have mainly been defensive, but they should not be underestimated. It has maintained monopoly control over the Syrian state’s still-functioning institutions, and it has also managed to keep for itself a Syrian national identity that is cross-confessional, multiethnic, and inclusive. The regime has a core of active supporters, but it has also enlisted the passive or active support of many Syrians who want to preserve what’s left of the state, who are exhausted by the war, or who fear what they see as an opposition overtaken by extremism and anarchic warlordism.
Ilya Samman, a businessman and member of the tolerated opposition Syrian Social Nationalist Party, has helped organize “local reconciliations” in towns near Damascus that have entailed rebel surrenders and the restoration of government control. Samman, who told me he had been detained and tortured before the war for his membership in an illegal political party, acknowledged that he was serving the interests of the Assad government. “We thought, fine, if they want to use us,” he said. “So long as it’s useful to resolve the crisis.” His work might complement the government’s brutal military campaign, he told me, but it also allowed civilians to return to their homes and saved lives. “To me, it’s worth it,” he said.
The capital city’s exhausted public, meanwhile, seems uninterested in holding its own government to account. An apparently unreformed Syrian regime has offered to restore the old, predictable political order, albeit in substantially worse material circumstances. Many Syrians seem willing to accept that bargain.
And maybe the rest of the world will, too. Throughout the conference, speakers floated the possibility of renewed ties with Europe, but normalization with the United States seems to have been considered a bridge too far.
Yet when I asked Foreign Minister Moallem, more than a week before the U.S. presidential election, if he would consider cooperation with a President Donald Trump against the Islamic State, he said yes, unequivocally. “Through airstrikes, you cannot defeat ISIS. You need ground forces,” he said. “Our main goal is to defeat ISIS, not to defeat the United States.”
Since Trump’s election, Syrian officials have expressed cautious optimism about a thaw with the United States. Trump, for his part, has made clear that he is interested in fighting the Islamic State, not the Syrian government. And if Trump seriously pursues cooperation with Russia, it doesn’t seem impossible that the United States could begin coordinating with Moscow’s ally in Damascus.
I left the Syrian capital thinking that the Assad regime was unable to change. But if everyone is changing around it, maybe it won’t have to.
YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images