A veteran American presenter’s interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was an important event. The very fact that he agreed to talk to the US press for the first time since the uprising began in March is noteworthy. His decision to talk to an American broadcaster also proves that he was determined to persuade the US and to reach out to the world through American public opinion.
It’s not hard to guess that many journalists, especially European ones, watched this important interview with jealousy. Assad has proven once again that he doesn’t fully trust Europeans, and maybe he is not so wrong. It is also understandable that he didn’t chose to talk to a Turkish journalist, as tension between Turkey and Syria has been escalating constantly recently.
It may not be appropriate to make diplomatic analyses only by looking at Assad’s choice of the interviewer’s nationality, but in countries where there are no NGOs, no civil society organizations and no free press, leaders often act according to old paradigms. So we may very well say that a journalist does not represent its country or government, but leaders like Assad still believe that journalists’ nationality is an important variable.
Bashar al-Assad clearly indicated that it is useless to look at his country through the glasses of democracy because he said he never claimed Syria was a democracy. He implicitly admitted that the current regime is not the best option for his country. In other words, he probably tried to say that he is aware of the need for change but is hesitant as he is also aware that democracy means the end of his rule.
One of his most important remarks was that he is not the owner of the country or of the security forces. He probably tried to emphasize that the old guard of the Ba’ath regime is still influential and that he is not the sole ruler but just the spokesperson of a ruling elite. This is a way of saying that “I’m not responsible of the carnage, ‘they are.”
There are reasons to believe that this is not completely wrong. I remember the result of an hours-long discussion he made a few months ago with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. During that meeting he insinuated that he personally prefers to engage Syria with the West through Turkey, but that his circle doesn’t allow him to do so. The problem, however, is that he doesn’t hold the hands of those who try to help him out.
In closed regimes like Syria, it is not easy to understand what is really going on in the country’s power circles; however, we can make some guesses from between the lines of this interview. The Syrian president stated more than once that he is not the only one responsible for what is going on in his country, and by doing this, he conveyed a message to the international community targeting the members of the regime but not him. Targeting them also means targeting the foreign countries that support these cadres. By saying he, too, is unhappy with the ongoing violence, he also tried to say he still remains the only guarantee to prevent his country from sliding into civil war.
During the interview, he used every opportunity to argue that any kind of international intervention will only reinforce the Ba’ath regime. He also claimed that if there is government change through civil war, the new Syrian government will not be necessarily “friendly.” Is there anyone in the world that doesn’t know what does that means? In brief, he is saying, “If I go, Islamists will replace me, and that is bad news for both the West and Israel.” Asking the foreign powers to target his staff but to support him and to be careful about the people’s real demands is nothing but a direct challenge addressed to Turkey.