Anne Barnard reports: The guns were silent atop Mount Qasioun and the lights on its slopes twinkled over Damascus as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria welcomed a group of Western visitors into his French-Ottoman palace on Monday night, presenting himself as a man firmly in control of his country.
He radiated confidence and friendliness as he ushered a group of British and American journalists and policy analysts into an elegant wood-paneled sitting room where he claimed that the social fabric of Syria was stitched together “much better than before” a chaotic civil war began more than five years ago. It was as if half his citizens had not been driven from their homes and nearly half a million had not been killed in the bloody fighting for which he rejected any personal responsibility, blaming instead the United States and Islamist militants.
“I’m just a headline — the bad president, the bad guy, who is killing the good guys,” Mr. Assad said. “You know this narrative. The real reason is toppling the government. This government doesn’t fit the criteria of the United States.”
It was a surreal meeting for me after years of writing about a devastating and intractable war that has reduced several of Syria’s grand city centers to rubble and prompted accusations of war crimes. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians are besieged and hungry, here was Mr. Assad, secure in his palace because he has outsourced much of the war to Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces whose influence has grown to a degree that makes some of his own supporters uncomfortable. [Continue reading…]