New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 4, 2013
BEIRUT » President Bashar Assad of Syria appeared to be in a jovial mood late last week, even while facing a threatened American attack, joking with a visiting Yemeni delegation about the political mess in nearby Egypt and deriding his regional rivals as "half men."
Damascus was tense — streets deadly quiet, residents stockpiling food, wives and children of the elite dispatched hastily abroad. But Assad kept up appearances, greeting visitors at the entrance to the boxy white presidential palace atop a hill or to his small personal office in a wooded glen nearby. "He is not hiding," a Syrian journalist noted.
That has been his strategy, echoed in the public activities of his glamorous wife, Asma, since the March 2011 beginning of the conflict — to act as if nothing untoward is happening, as if the gory civil war that has laid waste to Syria takes place in a different realm. Asma Assad, rail thin, was even photographed recently wearing a trendy calorie counter on her wrist.
"He doesn't give the impression that he is bloodthirsty or that he's a man of war," said Talal Salman, the editor of Al-Safir newspaper in Beirut, who was once close to the Syrian leader but broke with him early over the bloody crackdown against peaceful protesters. "He does not give the sense that he's going to battle."
But behind the veneer of normality, Bashar Assad has grown increasingly aggressive, declaring his determination to wipe out the opposition, insisting that he is standing against an imperialist enemy. Gone from at least his public statements is any talk of finding a political settlement, while he ratchets up his military drive to try to regain lost territory.
For 2 1/2 years, the president has never wavered from his position that the uprising is a foreign plot — and he continues to refuse to express any responsibility or remorse for the blood washing over Syria. He has steadfastly rejected calling it a civil war.
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro published on Monday, Assad said, "In the beginning, the solution should have been found through a dialogue from which political measures would have been born."
That is no longer the case, he said, repeating his constant refrain that 90 percent of the opposition fighters are terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida. "The only way to cope with them is to liquidate them," he said. "Only then will we be able to discuss political measures."
Assad, who turns 48 next week, was never meant to rule. Bashar was the second son, summoned home from his training as an ophthalmologist in Britain in 1994 after his macho older brother, Bassel, died driving his Mercedes-Benz too fast on the Damascus airport road. But even before he inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez, in 2000, Syrians hoped he would bring change. They even called him "The Hope."
He championed computers at a time when the government still registered fax machines. He spoke English. He married a well-educated, beautiful woman and drove her to the opera in the family Audi. He described the oppressive Baath Party that his father had built as "a corpse on his shoulders," Salman remembered.
But Assad ultimately balked at challenging his father's legacy. Instead the president never seriously entertained the idea that reform required fundamentally altering the police state that his father had begun constructing in 1970.
To this day he believes that system can be resurrected.
"This is his mood," said Samir al-Taqi, a heart surgeon once close to the president who fled into exile even before the uprising. "He thinks he can return and resume ruling as he did before."
Abdullah al-Maqtari, a Yemeni Parliament member from a party that supports Assad, said the president exhibited "high morale" during an hourlong discussion with his delegation on Thursday.
The Syrian government has a long history of bloody rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement. So when one of the guests referred to Mohammed Morsi, the deposed president of Egypt and a Brotherhood leader, as a donkey, Assad interjected that the remark insulted the animal, Maqtari said in an interview in Beirut.
The Instagram account established by the presidential palace pumps out a constant stream of carefully staged pictures showing the president and his wife carrying out their official functions. Here he is giving a speech about economic development, even as the economy has virtually ceased to function. There she is sweating over a huge vat of food to be distributed to the families of fallen soldiers for the feast marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Some observers noted with glee that Asma Assad, a former investment banker raised in Britain, sported on her right wrist a turquoise Jawbone Up, a trendy, roughly $100 gadget to track diet, sleep and exercise routines. The constant data stream is meant to goad users to improve their habits.
The war has curbed the couple's unscripted public appearances. Mortar shells have crashed into Malki, the leafy upscale neighborhood of Damascus where they still live with their three children.
In early August, mortars struck in the vicinity of the presidential motorcade as Bashar Assad left home for the dawn prayer marking the close of Ramadan, opposition activists said. One activist said everyone walking on the street at the time was arrested - with a friend's brother released after two weeks. "They are very nervous," she said of government leaders.
The reality is that the war has entered a stalemate, and while Assad's forces have scored some recent victories, he presides over a fraction of Syria. His violent reaction to the uprising led what was once a proudly secular society into a largely sectarian conflict between the majority Sunni Muslims and his small minority of Alawites, an obscure branch of Shiite Islam.
"For him there is nothing to lose," a Damascus-based analyst said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "He cannot compromise. He has to see this through. He cannot rebuild; he cannot reconcile. He is stuck. He can rule over a pile of rubble — that is the best he can do."
The state propaganda apparatus seized on President Barack Obama's decision to submit the proposed attack to a congressional vote as a great victory for Assad, referring to it as a "historic American retreat" and portraying anyone insufficiently vocal in support of the government as a "traitor."
"The fact that it is being threatened is a very comfortable zone for this regime, which has been under threats and sanctions for decades," said Fadi Salem, a Syrian political analyst based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "It is a playground where they are very good at playing."
If Assad maintained a calm demeanor, the threat of an American attack rattled many, particularly government supporters. Syrians wondered how far the Americans would go — something drastic or something limited to signal disapproval of what the White House said was a poison gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21.
Ayman Abdel Nour, a college friend of the president's who now opposes him, said Assad had been assuring those around him — including the knot of relatives who remain his closest advisers — that the West was bluffing. The president argued that Washington would not move to unseat him because the main alternative, the increasingly Islamist opposition, was far worse in Western eyes. That also appears to be the main basis for much of the support he has left among Syrians.
"This is what Bashar Assad has told the top elite: that it will be a cosmetic attack," Abdel Nour said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "They believe it deeply."
With such an opaque regime, discerning its real thoughts can be a challenge. But many analysts believe that a cosmetic attack would help rejuvenate Assad's fortunes, at least temporarily, adding to the decades-long list of confrontations with the West in which Syria has prevailed merely by waiting out the uproar, by surviving.
International pressure over accusations that Assad's government carried out the 2005 assassination of Lebanon's leading politician, Rafik Hariri, was once so great, that he was forced to withdraw all Syrian troops from Lebanon, for example. But the outrage gradually dissipated.
The Assads think that they will prevail this time as they always have.
"He is playing again like his father, skirting the edge of the abyss," Abdel Nour said. "You might win, but one centimeter difference and you might fall."