The dark force in Syria

Theo Padnos writes:

If Bashar Al Assad is going to survive the current unrest he will need, in the first place, new media advisors. On Sunday, August 21, as Libyan revolutionaries were pouring into Tripoli, they put him in a living room with two interviewers from state TV. The quietness of the setting brought out his lisp, his too-small chair brought out his school-boy awkwardness, and the subservience of the interviewers somehow encouraged his habit of trying too hard to be the self-composed sovereign, the cause of all causes in Syria. Let no one assume that I was not born to lead in a time of crisis, he tried to say with his demeanor of ultra-calm self-confidence.

Early in the interview, he spoke of Syria’s geographical “position,” by which he meant its proximity to Israel. If NATO were to attack Syria, he would bring out Syria’s weaponry, “some of which they [NATO] don’t know about,” and this would produce a “result” which they (the West? Israel? who?) could not bear. His tone of voice was soft, almost sleepy. He was invoking a potential apocalypse. Did he have any notion of what he was suggesting? It seemed he hadn’t given much thought to the issue.

Performances like this tend to remind audiences in Syria of what Bashar Al Assad wanted to be when he had the choice: There was an ophthalmologist’s career in London in the offing, a pretty English wife, and a string of healthy Anglophone children.

The balance of the interview couldn’t have been good for Assad’s career. For five months now, the elite military units have been fanning out across Syria, roaming the countryside, entering cities at will, killing the inhabitants, and, by the way, filming themselves doing so. Ten thousand of the most unspeakable videos on YouTube accuse him, as do Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, and King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia (who never accuses anyone). The people he most needs to speak with, the demonstrators, no longer have any interest in talking to him. Their latest chant: “Not a word! No discussion! Get away from us, o Bashar!”

“We are at a transitional stage,” said the president in his interview. He spoke for 45 minutes about the reviews he planned for the constitution. Would Article 8 be reviewed on its own or would the review of this plank, which ensures single party rule, be part of a more comprehensive review?

He hadn’t decided. He had, however, committed to “a path of political reform” from “the first weeks of the demonstrations.” As the chief politician, he was leading the nation along this path. Yes, there were armed gangs who were trying to assert their own agenda. He had delegated the task of dealing with them, he said, to the appropriate institutions. “The political solution,” he repeated several times, “is the only one for Syria.”

As the president spoke, the interviewers didn’t bat an eye, but everyone in Syria knows that the snipers on the rooftops are themselves the political solution. Their commanders decide which cities to attack; they themselves decide who lives and who dies. The more they shoot, the more they drive Syria into the abyss.

If the president had been willing to speak about the doings of these troops—which mosque will they surround tomorrow? which cities will they attack?—the larger public in Syria might have watched this interview. But as everyone there knows, the institutions to which the president referred are not quite his own. They operate under the control of the president’s younger brother, Maher, and a coterie of ultra-loyal generals who have served the Assad family since the current president was a child. The president controls politics; these people control the nation.

By discoursing on constitutional reviews and committee processes, the president made it seem as though he didn’t understand that these have no relevance any longer. By refusing to acknowledge the power the snipers exercise over the nation, he made it seem as though he didn’t care or didn’t know what was happening in the streets.

The truth is that in each of Bashar Al Assad’s four public appearances since the beginning of the uprising in March, he has exhibited exactly this cluelessness. By now, the public has accepted it. The president inhabits another planet. Who cares?

A nation teetering on the edge of civil war does not need or want a weakened, irrelevant president. Maher and the generals of 40 years tenure surely know this. When Assad falters on national TV, the country looks leaderless. When it looks leaderless, the demonstrators are encouraged. This prompts Maher and the generals to grasp after greater control of the cities. When they grasp, the president must appear on TV to say that it is he, after all, who stands at the head of the political system. The more he makes irrelevant points like this, the more the country’s confidence in him deteriorates. This isn’t just a media advisor problem. There is something of the death spiral in the current scenario. Maher awaits.

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