No Hollywood screenwriter, putting words in the mouth of a fictional underworld
crime boss, could have topped Syrian despot Bashar Assad’s deadpan denial of
wrongdoing during his interview with Barbara Walters on ABC last week. Assad,
pokerfaced and impassive, played the mafia godfather to the hilt, when asserting
“No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s
led by a crazy person,” he intoned calmly, as if to underscore his sanity.
“There was no command to kill or be brutal,” he insisted.
scored by Walters constituted a last-ditch effort by Assad to face-lift his
image. He probably convinced just about as many of his viewers in Western
democracies as the fictional mobster’s denials would moviegoers. In this context
it’s important to keep in mind that the mild mannered British-trained
ophthalmologist, who inherited a country from his late dictator father, also
sends radically contradictory signals. Among them was his show of muscle
just a few days before his much-hyped interview aired.
Assad’s army fired state-of-the-art missiles in a ground-air military exercise
on December 3. His mouthpiece media rushed to explain that this was “like
a real battle,” stressing that the war games demonstrated “the capabilities and
the readiness of Syria’s missile systems to respond to any possible
In true godfather style, Assad denies any connection to
violence, while simultaneously hinting broadly that he can inflict pain on a
host of opponents and their perceived allies.
The tests in northern Syria
included 300-kilometer range Scud B missiles fired toward the Iraqi border, with
the unambiguous aim of intimidating any Western country likely to champion
intervention in Syria.
Foremost here is America, and hence the chosen
Israel too is certainly high on Assad’s hit list.
The fact that his regime is so beleaguered only makes him more dangerous. As
former IDF chief of staff MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) warned, the more desperate
Assad becomes, the greater the threat to Israel. “It can be reasonably assumed
that in the twilight of his rule, Assad will try to deflect attention from the
massacre of his own people by starting a conflict with Israel,” Mofaz
The menace isn’t only from Assad’s junta but from the fact
that he is Iran’s closest ally in the region and as such, for now, commands the
loyalty of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as enunciated by its chief Hassan
Nasrallah. A clear and present danger exists that Assad’s missile
stockpiles, replete with chemical warheads, will eventually make their way to
There’s woefully little attention to this in the
West, despite the censure of Assad’s oppression of his own people. Indeed, in
spite of profuse verbal denunciations, the Free World curiously continues to
sometimes speak indistinctly, if not altogether inconsistently. Both the
US and France, for example, last week announced that they are returning their
respective ambassadors to Damascus after having called them back in response to
recurrent threats and attacks.
The Assad regime had in the past
benefitted from perceived American flip-flops. Following the 2005 assassination
of Lebanese ex-premier Rafik Hariri, the US recalled its ambassador from
Damascus. Though suspicions of Syrian complicity in the assassination had since
substantially deepened, the Obama administration, embracing a dubious policy of
rapprochement, restored full relations and dispatched a new ambassador to Syria
in 2010, only to withdraw him last October and now to send him back
The excuse is that “we believe his presence in the country is
among the most effective ways to send the message that the United States stands
with the people of Syria,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said as
Ambassador Robert Ford traveled back to Damascus. French Ambassador Eric
Chevallier did likewise for the same stated reason.
True, both these
ambassadors met with and professed support for protesters before having been
pulled out due to safety fears. Yet have these concerns now evaporated? Would it
not be better to avoid even the remotest impression of improvement in relations?
Should not the message remain that Damascus’s godfather deserves diplomatic
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