What we learned from the Assad interview
Most of the reporting on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters has focused on the lies. And it’s easy work: The president, after all, claimed that he wasn’t responsible for his security forces’ actions, and that nobody in his government had ordered a crackdown on protesters. For the commentariat, that’s a softball lobbed ...
Most of the reporting on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters has focused on the lies. And it’s easy work: The president, after all, claimed that he wasn’t responsible for his security forces’ actions, and that nobody in his government had ordered a crackdown on protesters. For the commentariat, that’s a softball lobbed over the middle of the plate.
But just because Assad isn’t telling the truth doesn’t mean he didn’t provide insights into his regime. In fact, the interview told viewers quite a bit about how he views Syria’s political dynamics, and his strategy for overcoming the current unrest. Here’s what we learned:
Assad is no man of the people: In the early 1980s, President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, faced a sustained uprising from Islamist movements inside Syria. It was the most serious threat that his regime would face, and he responded with a brutality that far exceeded the current crackdown. But Hafez didn’t only reach for the stick — he bolstered a personal connection with the Syrian people, often at personal risk to himself. Here’s what the New York Times had to say, on March 24, 1982:
A week ago, after a speech marking the rise to power of the Baath Party, President Assad stunned onlookers by plunging into the crowd, then walking with the demonstrators several miles through the center of Damascus, often letting them carry him on their shoulders. The spectacle was unprecedented. Normally, the President remains behind a wall of security forces and travels in fast-moving convoys.
Western diplomats on the scene are convinced he acted on impulse and that the security forces had no advance warning. He took a stunning security risk.
What’s Assad’s response to the most serious threat to his regime? He gave an interview to the London Sunday Times‘s Hala Jaber in late November, and now he’s given an interview to Walters. Apart from an interview with Syrian television in August, he has yet to address his own people.
Assad may belittle the importance of international good will — his mantra in the Walters interview was that sabotage from the West and Arab states couldn’t overcome the support that he maintained among his own people. His choice of interviewers says differently.
Assad takes Syrian institutions seriously: Or at least, he pretends to. One of the most revealing parts of the interview is Bashar’s account of how he came to rule Syria: It wasn’t due to his father, who ruled the country with an iron grip for 30 years — Hafez never trained him, he said, or wanted his son to succeed him. "I became president because of the public support," he claimed.
It’s that same reliance on his country’s byzantine institutions that caused Assad to deny any connection to his own security forces’ crackdown. "They are not my forces, they are military forces belonging to the government," he said. Never mind that his brother is one of his most important military commanders, and that the border with Lebanon is marked with a sign reading "Assad’s Syria."
Syria’s institutions present Assad with a useful illusion. After all, institutions can be reformed, but a country that is little more than a personal fiefdom needs a revolution.
Barbara Walters: not awful! Everyone who made snarky comments about Walters’ lack of qualifications to conduct this interview should be eating crow (and that includes me). If she found the Syrian president "intelligent" and "charming" in 2008, she seems to have since been disabused of the notion. Walters pressed him on all the hot-button issues: the government crackdown, his growing isolation, and the effect of sanctions on Syria’s economy. Personally, I would have also read Assad some of the quotes from his January interview with the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon — when the president was still gloating that his country had remained stable amidst the regional turmoil — but that’s a minor point.
Overall, it’s hard to see what Assad gained from the interview. He seemed out of touch, at times incoherent, and delusional about the support that he still enjoys in Syria. If the world learned anything from this interview, it was that they have seen enough of Assad.
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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