Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, March 8th, 2015
by David W. Lesch
There has been a spate of interviews of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad by Western reporters or media personalities in the last few months. The most recent one was conducted by the BBC, while another notable interview appeared in Foreign Affairs. There have been many since the beginning of the almost four-year conflict. As they are difficult to arrange, each one is treated as something of a media event. As expected, on every occasion immediately thereafter, other publications, commentators, academics, websites, and even the interviewers themselves in one way or another dissect the interview, most of the time employing Asad’s responses as evidence of his perfidy.
For my part, these interviews elicit a collective yawn. I understand the nature of the questions, but they are repeated over and over by each interviewer: Did you (Asad) makes mistakes in the beginning of the uprising? Did you or do you now use chemical weapons? Do you admit atrocities carried out by Syrian armed forces? Are you using barrel bombs? When Asad denies any and all of these accusations in a specific sense—the most he will allow is something along the line of “all wars produce civilian casualties and all humans make mistakes”—the post-interview analysis almost unanimously concludes he is delusional, detached, disconnected, or an out-an-out liar. Frankly, he probably is all of these things to some extent, but on the other hand, what does anyone expect him to say?
The interviewers, searching for that “wow” moment when they can somehow get Asad to admit to one of the many atrocities purportedly carried out by his regime, invariably fail to do so. What becomes notable is the dance itself, i.e. the reporter’s attempts with statistics, quotes, and direct observation to trick (or shame) Asad into a less defiant posture. Asad is too smart to let this happen; indeed, since most of the interviewers are asking the same questions over and over, he has had quite a bit of practice at evasive maneuvers.
Asad understands that to indicate any culpability for something such as the use of chemical weapons or barrel bombs is also to punch a one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court. In addition, and maybe more importantly from his point of view, he is trying to come off to the West as the sane choice at the same time that the Islamic State is burning people alive. He seems calm, cool, and collected, as if he is, indeed, in control—a decent ally to have in the war against the far more evil Islamic State. He isn’t really doing a great job at endearing himself to the international public, though, as Syrian government officials have traditionally been inept at public diplomacy. Asad has been much better at it than ever was his reclusive, taciturn father, Hafiz al-Asad, but even the younger version still operates within a conceptual paradigm that is governed by paranoia and a default understanding that the United States and its allies have been consistently trying to get rid of him. So he comes off as out of touch, unrealistic, and even flippant, especially because his English—his third language—can sometimes work against him.
Asad is also not going to admit anything that would pit him against “his people.” The majority of Syrians are innocent bystanders to the war, and keeping most of them on the side of the government—or at least not on the side of the Syrian opposition—is crucial to maintaining power and providing a credible alternative inside and outside of Syria. He is not delusional in the sense of being crazy. It is a combination of strategy as well as the truly held belief, delusional or not, that he is, indeed, trying to save the country from terrorists. For him this is an easy conclusion to make since he believes he has had a target on his back for some time, long before 2011. It is how he views the world, and only if you spend a great deal of time in Syria do you understand that Asad and many of his supporters really do believe this, that it is not some sort of grand deception.
As someone who has met with and interviewed Asad numerous times in the period from 2004 to 2009, in terms of his demeanor and outlook, he still gives the same types of interviews. I had the good fortune, however, to be able to speak with him for hours on end on many occasions. Because of that, I was able to get past the talking points. I always felt that 90% of what he told me was fairly scripted. But it was the other 10%, when he let his guard down a bit, that was pure gold. The BBC interviewer, the respected Jeremy Bowen, was getting there at the end of his interview, when he asked Asad about the pain and suffering of war, and Asad mentioned the fact that he had also lost family and friends. I could see his guard come down, but the allotted time was over, and Bowen ended the interview. I wish he was able to continue along that more personal line. Now that would have been truly interesting.
David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and is the author or editor of 14 books, including Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.