(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bashar Assad looks good. No visible gray hair. No wrinkles. In a 45-minute interview with America’s NBC News in Damascus, he spoke with clarity and confidence. When correspondent Bill Neely challenged him about the realities in Syria today, Assad was unfazed. He maintained a relaxed composure. Nothing said to or about him altered his narrative.
“I hope that history will see me as the man who protected his country, from the terrorism and from the intervention, and saved its sovereignty,” Assad said. “When you protect your country from the terrorists, and you kill terrorists, and you defeat terrorists, you’re not brutal. You are a patriot.”
More than 400,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began with a protest by school children in 2011. The total no doubt is higher, but the UN stopped counting two years ago. Syrians of all ages, not “terrorists,” comprise the overwhelming majority of the dead.
Assad’s view that anyone opposed to his rule is a terrorist has hardened since Islamic State (ISIS), taking advantage of the internal conflict, seized large areas of Syria. Still, while the multifaceted Syrian conflict has become more complex, Assad fundamentally is responsible for much of the death and destruction. Nearly half of Syria’s prewar population of 21 million are refugees in Syria and neighboring countries.
“The impression you give, Mr. President, is of a man who bears no responsibility for things done in his name to the Syrian people,” Neely told Assad as they sat facing each other. “You have an air of ‘it really doesn’t matter.’” Assad was unmoved. He has served 16 years as president, was reelected in 2014 during a wartime election, and is convinced the Syrian people support him and his regime.
“If they want me to leave, I will leave,” Assad said of the Syrians, dismissing repeated calls by US leaders for him to step down.
The self-assurance Assad projects is boosted by Moscow’s consistent support. He also credits Iran and China for helping to save Syrian “sovereignty” and “unity.” Russia has backed Assad from the beginning. At the UN, Russia, as well as China, dutifully blocked meaningful Security Council action, arguing that Assad is the country’s legitimate leader and the Syrian people will decide the fate of their country.
Yet notwithstanding Moscow’s warnings against foreign troops in Syria, Russia is the only UN Security Council permanent member to have dispatched combat forces there.
“Russian support for the Syrian army has tipped the scales against the terrorists,” said Assad, adding that the war could end in a few months if other countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, as well as the US, would stop aiding what he calls terrorist organizations.
Assad emphasized that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “never said a single word” to him about transition.
That was a clear rebuke of repeated official US statements regarding discussions with Moscow about creating a path to peacefully replace Assad. Agreeing on a framework for leadership transition presumably is still a goal of the UN-sponsored peace talks that possibly could resume this month.
Assad’s composure also reflects recognition that, despite the war in his country, he stands alone as a regional survivor. The Arab Spring turmoil felled the leaders of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Last month Turkey endured an attempted coup followed by a widespread crackdown by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No military uprising against Assad is in the cards, and the general populace is powerless as Assad exercises, in his words, “our right to use any armament against the terrorists unless banned by international law.”
Why did Assad’s advisers grant the rare interview to a major American TV network at this time? Neely had been trying for five years to sit down with Assad on camera. Maybe Assad was sending a message (in perfect English) to the American public and the final candidates for the presidential election that he is determined to stay and is succeeding.
Clearly, the Syrian conflict will continue to bedevil the next White House occupant as it has the outgoing administration. But ignoring Syria is not an option. Syrians have suffered horribly.
The war has spilled over into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and is a principal source of the mass migration to, and refugees crisis, in Europe. And the grave situation in Syria, with substantial Hezbollah and Iranian involvement, is a reminder of the persistent regional challenges Israel faces.
“Middle East chaos causes world chaos,” Assad warned. The reality Assad does not acknowledge is that the chaos in Syria, which his regime initiated and continues to fester, is a prime, if not the main, source of violence and destabilization in the region and beyond.
Assad’s smugness is a clear and continuing menace.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.