Interviewing Assad

No Hollywood screenwriter could've topped Syrian despot Assad’s deadpan denial of wrongdoing during his interview with Barbara Walters.

Assad 311 reuters (photo credit: reuters)
Assad 311 reuters
(photo credit: reuters)
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 his innocence.
“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.
The scoop 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.
With fanfare 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 aggression.”
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 Iraqi-border trajectory.
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 suggested.
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 Hezbollah arsenals.
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 again.
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 ostracism?