Ten months into Syria’s unrest, those who know President Bashar al-Assad say there’s good reason he has outlasted other leaders threatened by the Arab Spring uprisings: stone-hearted detachment.
This trait was evident when the Syrian president broke his silence and gave an interview to ABC News, broadcast Dec. 7, in which he refused to accept responsibility for the violence, according to a former friend, Ayman Abdel Nour, a media and public policy consultant who first met Assad as a college student in 1984.
Assad “lives in a cocoon” and opts not to see the reports of torture and killings alleged to have occurred since mid- March, when the protests began, Nour said in an interview after watching the president’s appearance on ABC.
As the death toll in Syria passes 5,000, according to United Nations estimates, the international community is increasing economic and political pressure on Assad’s government while showing support for the opposition. Amid this growing isolation, Assad’s demeanor during the interview has prompted Western officials to question the extent to which he is in control and how long he can last.
A day after the interview aired, a U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said that Assad’s comments indicated that either the Syrian president is a “tool” or he is “completely disconnected” from reality.
Out of Context
Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said Assad’s comments were taken out of context. Syria says it is fighting foreign conspirators, armed gangs and Islamists.
Even as Assad made overtures to the West by agreeing to the ABC interview, the killings of civilians didn’t stop, and a United Nations human-rights official, Navi Pillay, has warned that Syria may descend into civil war. Should that happen, there are concerns that the violence would spill into neighboring states such as Lebanon, which borders Israel.
David W. Lesch, who wrote a biography of the president’s late father, Hafez Al-Assad, says evidence suggests that forces other than Assad -- including members of the Mukhabarat, the dozen branches of Syria’s security and intelligence agencies -- are making decisions about the harshness of the violence.
“Power at the top in Syria is compartmentalized,” Lesch said in an e-mailed response to questions. “While Bashar is certainly in control and ultimately responsible for all actions by the government, there are fiefdoms of power that react convulsively when their area of authority is activated.”
Control the Mukhabarat
Lesch said he caught a glimpse of this when he was detained in 2007 during a visit to Damascus to meet the president.
“I basically told him that he needs to get more control over the Mukhabarat because it would could come back to haunt him,” Lesch said.
The Syrian National Council, an alliance of opposition groups that include the Muslim Brotherhood, has opened its first office in Turkey, Motee al-Bateen, a member of the council’s executive branch, said today in a telephone interview. The group plans to hold parliamentary elections in exile, he said.
The current crackdown is reminiscent of Hafez al-Assad’s repression of dissenters in 1982, when Bashar was graduating from high school and about to embark on his university studies and a medical degree. Then, his brother Bassel was the heir.
After Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, Bashar disappeared for more than a year. Upon his return, Nour said, the shy, pleasant, even delicate man he had known at Damascus University had begun lifting weights and had undergone the first phase of a radical personality change.
“He became more confident, daring, an assertive military man,” Nour, 47, said in a Dec. 9 telephone interview. “After he became president, when people showered him with compliments and inflated his ego, he became totally different -- as if he was chosen by God to run Syria. He believed he was a prophet and started to build his own world.”
In the ABC interview, even as he denied having ordered the killings, Assad said: “There was no command to kill or be brutal.”
“They are not my forces,” he said in the interview. “They are military forces that belong to the government. I don’t own them.”
Assad delegated military and security matters to his brother Maher and other relatives years ago. Some of them, including Rami Makhlouf, a cousin, were involved in commerce, said Patrick Seale, a biographer of Bashar’s father.
Lacks ‘Political Imagination’
The president “seems to lack political imagination,” Seale said in an interview. “He’s reacting in a rather helpless way, his speeches are lamentable, interviews very poor. Assad inherited an extremely strong presidency, but he doesn’t seem to be exercising power.”
Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf are among 19 Syrians blacklisted by the Arab League earlier this month for their roles in the crackdown. The 21-nation group suspended Syria from membership last month.
The Arab League actions followed the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. UN action on Syria has been blocked by Russia and China, two countries with veto power in the Security Council. Both countries say they want to avoid a repeat of the situation in Libya, contending that the Security Council overstepped its mandate by arming the rebels who overthrew Muammar Qaddafi.
Leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have also been ousted by protesters this year.
Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, who met Assad in 2003 and 2004, said that in both those meetings the president “displayed uncanny patience when confronted with allegations of his regime’s utter brutality.”
“Most people would push back strongly to charges of murder, torture and state-sponsored terrorism, but Assad’s responses were calm, deliberate and mild, as if he had just been asked why he doesn’t pay his parking tickets,” Danin said.
Nour recalled an incident in 2000, shortly after Assad succeeded his father as president, involving a child who had been painfully injured and needed medical attention.
Nour, who ended his friendship with Assad in 2004, said he told the Syrian leader that the sight of the child in pain had made him want to cry.
“He got angry and said, ‘You can’t use such emotive words,’” Nour said. “It was forbidden to talk about anything emotional while with him. He said he was the president and can’t take decisions based on emotions and has to be cold, calculated and detached.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon at firstname.lastname@example.org; Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at email@example.com; Caroline Alexander in London at firstname.lastname@example.org