Jeremy Bowen’s half-hour long interview with Bashar al-Assad is being heavily trailed by the BBC this morning. And while it has little that is new it does provide an interesting insight into the Syrian President’s current situation.
The main story from it is Assad’s confirmation that there is some line of communication between the Syrian regime and the Americans. Bowen put to Assad that there are American planes over Syria all the time engaged in the fight against Isis and that there must be some contact between them. While confirming that they do not speak directly, Assad did confirm that Iraq and other countries act as intermediaries. But it was the way in which Assad said this that was most interesting.
Assad: ‘There’s information but not dialogue.’
Bowen: ‘They tell you things?’
Assad: ‘Something like this.’
Bowen: ‘Do you tell them things?’
Then Assad sniggers. It has never been an uncommon tic among Assad’s many tics that he sniggers at odd moments. But there is something particularly striking about it here, coming as it does during an interview in which he is obviously trying very hard to exert an aura of calm and control.
Obviously he only agreed to do the interview because he wants to be seen as a practical, human, interested party in a time of Isis-dominated madness. On the barbarities of his own regime he swots questions away. He dismisses accounts of killings of civilians as ‘childish’. Other aspects of the regime’s brutal suppression over the last four years are rejected as ‘not realistic’. In denying the well-documented use of barrel-bombs which kill civilians indiscriminately the President twice makes a strange joke that the army do not use ‘cooking pots’ against civilians either. When the discussion turns to the apparent use of chlorine gas Assad points out that chlorine can be found in any household. Bowen points out that it can be militarised. ‘Anything can be militarised’ replies Assad, with the air of a man who knows.
Otherwise the interview is an exercise in self-deception and the attempted deception of global public opinion. The Assad regime has survived longer than anybody expected by being even more brutal than even some seasoned observers expected them to be. The government is now banking on Isis making the Assad regime look comparatively moderate and decent. The fact that it should ever have been able to boil down to this is no accident.
In the course of the interview Assad quotes President Obama as saying that the idea of a moderate Syrian opposition was a fantasy. Assad obviously agrees with this and asks ‘Why did the so-called moderate opposition evaporate?’ That is indeed the question. And one to which Assad knows the answer. The moderate opposition evaporated because Assad’s forces were dedicated to killing them and banked, correctly, on the US, UK and other allies lacking the knowledge, attention-span or will to locate and support them.