The world according to Bashar al-Assad

Published by Today's Zaman, 25 November 2011

Over the last few weeks, I was able to listen to a number of people who recently visited Syria and met and talked with Bashar al-Assad himself.

With such fresh personal insights into what’s inside his mind and what we have seen from his public statements of late, we are able to put together a picture of how he sees what’s happening around him.
It is clear that Assad is still confident of his stand and does not see an end to his regime. Firstly, he thinks that the White House is fooling American citizens by making public declarations of freezing his and his family’s assets in the US, but not actually pressuring Syria. Assad points out that he has no assets whatsoever in the US and President Barack Obama knows that too. He sees a US unwilling to unsettle his rule and dependent on other countries, such as Turkey. Secondly, he thinks that Israel wants him in office and that they will never back any strong campaign against him, let alone one that could lead to a crumbling Syria ruled by Islamists.

Thirdly, Assad thinks that Turkey’s pressure on him is limited and that the strong reactions shown by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government are only for the public. He does not think there is anything else Turkey can do from now on. He believes that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) still hold the main power in the country and will never allow “Islamists” to take Turkey to war. Given that Syrian and Turkish rapprochement began with military relations, Assad still holds positive feelings towards the TSK. He believes that he has enough to work on with Kurds to create indirect pressure on Turkey.

Fourthly, Assad continues to hold deep mistrust towards powerful Arab countries in the region. He sees Egypt as not being a true Middle Eastern country, but a North African one. Egypt, for him, only makes noise but has no actual power or influence in the region. He sees the Gulf countries as villains. He believes that all of the booming countries, such as the UAE, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia, are doomed to collapse and fail when the petrol money runs out as they are not “real” nations. He sees Saudi Arabia as a major threat with its never ending funding of radical groups. He believes Qatar to be too ambitious but lacking any substance. Jordan, accordingly, is a small puppet kingdom for the US.

US, EU and Arab countries untrustworthy

The fall out between the majority of Arab countries and Syria during the Iraq-Iran war, and the Syrian-Iranian relations that drew closer in that process, continue to shape Assad’s thinking. He knows that the US, EU and Arab countries want him to draw closer to their bloc, and away from Iran, but finds the proposed partners untrustworthy. His lifelines, Iran and influence over Lebanon, seem to be strong and entrenched. Thus, threats from the Arab League do not faze him.

Beyond what we see in the international media and our emotive anticipations over another Arab Spring revolution, Assad still has important levels of domestic support. The fears of radical Sunni groups not only dominating the country, but enforcing Islam on the masses, is common even among conservative Sunni Muslims, not least among the Alewites and liberals. The substantial Christian community in the country is sleepless with fear of a possible post-Assad Syria. He now publicly acknowledges that mistakes were made towards Kurds. He seems set to ensure that Kurds who were previously denied citizenship are now granted it and that they come to see themselves as Syrians.

His underlying political discourse still speaks of some sort of Pan-Arab idealism, not Syrian nationalism. He speaks of Arab unity and power, and yet what he means by that remains elusive. Just like his father, he tries to evoke Arab nationalism across the Arab world and fails to achieve it. He is acutely aware that his Arab unity discourse is pretty much limited to Lebanon and Syria and he is actually talking about Syrian influence and power, led by his family. However, his primary concern and warnings that Syria will be overtaken by Islamists echo a significant portion of his countrymen and fellow Arabs in other countries as well as worried eyes in Europe and North America. He still has a winning argument built on these fears to legitimize his brutal crackdown on “rebels.”

Assad is not wrong in some of his readings of his neighborhood. He is masterfully aware of the fears of the majority of Syrians, most of who want the turbulent days to end so that they can go back to their normal lives and feel safe again. The “uprising” in Syria does not seem to have reached the critical mass needed to topple the Assad regime, and the armed forces and intelligence services remain faithful and in tact. Regional dynamics still maintain support for Syria, as well as the animosities that Syria has learned to live with and navigate through for the last 20 years. The chaotic Syrian opposition is not in a place to challenge and replace him in the near future. In fact, some of their protests and signs of militant attacks are not welcomed widely. In other words, there is no immediate major change on the horizon, at least not yet.