Bashar al-Assad is not disconnected from reality. He is trying hard to come to terms with it, and thereby developing bizarre arguments in order to justify for himself becoming evil.
Photo: ABC News
The Barbara Walters interview with Bashar al-Assad in December of last year was unique in many ways. Not only was it the first time Bashar spoke to American media since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the one-on-one with the ABC journalist offered a rare insight into the thinking of the Syria president who is cornered and isolated internationally. This widely commented interview is still full of insights and lessons worth analyzing in light of the events of the months following it. Besides, it reveals quite a lot about the intellectual world of a person with an inconspicuous character justifying for himself why he is now the leader of a satanic regime.
Thanks to the hacked e-mails of the Assad’s family, we now know that Bashar picked Walters upon a recommendation of one of his aids. Walters already met the Assad family twice before. Of course, Barbara Walters is very famous for her interview with Qaddafi in 1989 when she directly asked him whether he was ‘insane’.
The madness notion was also present in the interview with the Syrian president, but this time it was brought up by Bashar himself. Bashar answered a question in regard to the violent crack-down of the peaceful protests with “we don’t kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person”. Many interpreted Bashar’s answer as him being out-of-touch with what is happening in his country
In fact, Bashar is not disconnected from reality. Remember the famous answer of Qaddafi “all my people love me” in an interview with ABC/BBC in February 2011 amidst the Libyan revolution. Well, Bashar is different in the sense that he thinks that ‘it is normal that there are people against him’ but he still has the majority behind him, as he told Walters.
Furthermore, Bashar admits that “mistakes” have been committed. This corresponds to the advice of his media trustees who thought that admitting mistakes will help manipulate the “American psyche”, as the Mrs. Sheherazad Jaafari – a press attaché at the Syrian mission to the UN – wrote Bashar in the leaked e-mails. Yet, when Mrs. Walters mentioned the deliberate murders and arrests of civilians, the Syrian president replied by simply saying “I don’t believe you”.
In order to make sense of all of this, it would not be enough to conclude that Assad has lost sense of reality. On the contrary, the contemplative, would-be intellectual is not denying reality but rather trying to make sense of it.
Even before the recent unrest, Assad’s public speeches have been full of intellectual ramblings and imprecise analogies and lectures. When Assad argues, it often seems that he does not want to or cannot sound like a politician. Instead, he makes an effort to derive things logically, and often enough, appears to be convinced that his logic has some truth in it.
Does Assad really think, although he is the head of Syrian government, he is still not a politician? Interestingly, there was one moment in the ABC interview to this effect. Bashar answered a request by Barbara Walters to respond to Obama’s comment that Assad should step down by saying: “I am not a political commentator, I comment on actions not words.”
To translate this using Bashar’s logic: ‘Yes, I am a politician. But according to my understanding of a politician, such does not have to talk politics’; ‘Yes, my government is killing its people. But no, it is not, if we would define the words killing and its people differently’; ‘Yes, people hate me… But let us assume that only a popular president can stay in power. Since I am still president, people love me.’
Assad, who might believe he can appreciate things better than an average person, is more concerned about convincing himself of the consistency of his arguments. And in doing so, he is often lost in his own dialectic, but anyhow remains convinced of its usefulness.
This might be why Bashar was popular not long time ago. He is pragmatic, reflective and not politician by nature. His father, Hafez al-Assad, would have shot opponents with his own gun, and give this no thought. Bashar, the former eye specialist and chair of the Syrian Computer Society, would need first to deceive himself into doing it.
Assad’s answers resemble the efforts of any wannabe intellectual. He scores and misses, but keeps justifying things, not politically but argumentatively. When Barbara Walters opened the interview by asking Bashar whether he is a “tyrant and a dictator”; he replied “there is a big difference between dictator and dictatorship” and “dictatorship is about the system, we never said we are a democratic country…” That is not your typical politician’s answer.
Similarly, the president was asked about the isolation of Syria by its neighbors and the international community. You would expect Bashar to dodge the question or rebut the claim, but he chose to start his answer by “it depends on how you define isolation”. When Walters did not jump in Bashar’s ontological debate and instead pressured him on facts, he gave an array of differing arguments: “They do not have interest to isolate us.”; “We are not isolated.”; “We have been under embargo for 30 years”; “They cannot isolate Syria”; “It (the economic sanctions) is not implemented”; “They are going to suffer”; “If they isolate Syria, Syria will collapse”.
For Bashar, Syria is both isolated and not isolated at the same time. It is hard to argue with somebody who is convinced that everything is a matter of definition and he can have it both ways.
In reality, Bashar was neither prepared nor intended to become a politician responsible for the atrocities of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. But since he had to resign himself to doing so, he developed his own ways of reconciling himself with the ungrateful job. While this is obvious when listening to his lectures, he does not seem to have difficulties doing so. Besides, in the totalitarian one-party regime of Syria, the pragmatic Bashar knows that he is only one link in a long, unmerciful chain.
While the violent crack-down would escalate since Bashar’s december interview, his confidence in the rational of his defiance only grew. With too much blood on his hands and some new self-justifications for committing war crimes on his own people, a line in the thinking of the Syrian president has been crossed. In view of this new and final self-betrayal, expect Bashar al-Assad to become even more resigned and cold-blooded.
Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi