Interviewing Asad — by David W. Lesch

David W. LeschInterviewing Asad

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.

Comments (7)

annie said:
Reese Erlich on ISIS and the Syrian Civil War

March 8th, 2015, 5:41 pm


DamascusRose said:

Excellent observations Dr. Lesch, but what most people fail to understand is that Bashar Alasad is not a one man operation, he’s surrounded with incredibly savvy and experienced cadre of professional “think tankers” that work out of the Republican Palace (القصر الجمهوري). They’re experienced professionals (spanning decades), and most possess Ph.D.s and other advanced degrees in international law, foreign affairs, media, technology, human psychology, you name it. They, along with few trusted advisers, develop the overall messaging of the Syrian leadership and have done so since his father’s days. There are also handlers that are always present, and you should know this, that will always have the right signals to shift the discussion topic or interrupt at a last resort.

The interviews are usually planned when the palace needs to communicate a certain message out, and only then, an interview will be granted and a specific reporter (media outlet) is chosen. People in the know tell about marathon sessions where the President is prepared for every line of questioning possible, in a manner very similar to the preparation for U.S. presidential debates. What Bashar does well is that he’s a good study and he is very disciplined. It is very hard to get him rattled, you’re not dealing with your run-of-mill Middle East dictator – these reporters always seem to think they’re clever and they have the right set of questions to get him to slip or get that “wow” moment but he always manages to stick to the script. And, if the line of questioning gets him off balance then he usually dismisses the question entirely and goes on his own tangent, answers the question with a question of his own (one of his favorite tricks), or just flat out denies everything. That’s what usually exasperates the interviewer and they come out thinking the man is delusional or a psychopath.

It is my own personal opinion, and I speak from good knowledge, that no interviewer will succeed if they just parrot the international community list of grievances with him, nor will they succeed by getting him to lower his guard and ask personal questions, the only way to see what’s behind the mask is to find a way get the man angry. Only then, you’ll see the real Bashar, not an easy task at all, especially that his closest handlers are also aware of this weakness.

March 9th, 2015, 12:05 am


Joe said:

Great observations. I wish interviewers would ask more about battle strategy. 1) What are short term goals for the southern front? 2) What would the regime like a Assad regime/Kurdish alliance to look like? 3) What role does the regime want for the SSNP beyond Homs Province? Will they be allowed more political representation in the cabinet? 4) Will the Druse be asked for more participitation in the National Defence Forces? There are so many good questions never asked. Thanks.

March 9th, 2015, 8:37 am


Ghufran said:

Let us remember that there is a brutal war in Syria where most victims did not have to die.
Trying to get a confession from a politician who is fighting a war, just or not, is like attempting to force a hungry man to drink coffee because the food on the table is not healthy. Assad knows what his supporters did but he wants the audience to know that his enemies are worse and convince people who have not yet made up their mind that he is a better alternative to Islamists and terrorists, that’s where the beef was from day one and it is obvious that most Syrians including those who dislike or even despise the regime are at least suspicious of rebels ( and their supporters) intentions and ability to move Syria forward. Conspiracy theorists will insist that the current situation was designed by the regime and Iran but even if that is true we are left with the bitter conclusion that Syrians, especially those who like to be referred to as revolutionists, only managed to make a bad situation much worse and for that it is fair to declare the so called revolution dead.

March 9th, 2015, 10:44 pm


Uzair8 said:

#2 Damascus Rose

Great insight. Which naturally leads me ask, you wouldn’t happen to be ‘The’ Rose of Damascus?

I knew you’d come through for the revolution. Your Sunnism and the influence of Ibn Taymiyyah were bound to surface…

March 10th, 2015, 1:45 am


Uzair8 said:

It was tongue-in-cheek in last comment. Recall the recent discussion about Sunnis allegedly being influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah.

March 10th, 2015, 1:48 am


Ghufran said:

Turkey and Syria are taking to each other finally, Kurds and Isis are the reason. Islamists and Israel are worried but it is too early to expect a breakthrough.

April 12th, 2016, 6:03 pm


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