By: Sami Kleib
At the start of his third term in office, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems to be living his daily life as though there is no war in the country. There is nothing in his office that suggests there is a war, save for the sound of artillery fire that could be heard from time to time, from the shelling of the strongholds of those who are now being described as terrorists.
Damascus- All those who were in close contact with him throughout the conflict admit that he has been coolheaded. People close to Assad say the day U.S. President Barack Obama declared the zero hour for the attack on Syria – which he backed down from later – Assad continued, until the very last moment, calling staff to check up on them, one by one.
Though confidence and certainty were in short supply during the war, Assad continued to stress that Syria was the victim of a foreign conspiracy, and that terrorism would spread and even return to stage attacks in the places it had come from. Today, he feels vindicated.
“The West, albeit belatedly, has validated what I have been saying since my first speech after the crisis, because the West feels the fire is spreading to its soil,” Assad said.
Ubiquitous banners containing messages of support for President Bashar al-Assad are the first thing one sees moments after crossing the border from Lebanon into Syria. All the banners carry Assad’s signature and the slogan of his recent election campaign “Together.” Interestingly, major Syrian companies, brand names, and known figures have returned to the habit of signing these banners. This would have been unthinkable in the past few years, as many Assad supporters sought to distance themselves, at least from public support for the Syrian leader.
Will “Together” really be the slogan for the next stage?
Assad believes so. He said “dialogue and the culture of dialogue…” is now the main theme of the stage. This has been proven valid with the not-so-small number of reconciliation deals reached so far. Assad said, “We have reached deals with militants and issued an amnesty for them, so why shouldn’t we have dialogue?”
The deal in Homs was not the result of a regional and international agreement, Assad said, “but the result of dialogue between National Defense Forces and the militants.”
“They know one another, and they are neighbors, which is why the reconciliation was successful,” he added, saying that despite the deep wounds and mutual grudges, the government dealt with the militants with great respect, and let them leave and carry out their lives normally after they handed over their arms.Assad is convinced, more than ever, of the people’s ability to overcome this dark phase of Syria’s history. Perhaps this is exactly what helped him remain calm throughout the crisis.
He said, “I continued to meet with people and delegations. I felt from the first moments of this crisis, which “they” brought to our country to destroy Syria, that people had confidence in the state, its president, and its army. For this reason, I continued to bet on the ability of the people to confront the conspiracy. Elections then confirmed that people did not change, despite the media, the mobilization, and the accusations of blasphemy, and terror and foreign plotting.”
Damascus is the same as Moscow
Assad’s confidence in his people and army is backed by his confidence in his allies. He said, “Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the Syrian position because he realizes that was is happening to Syria is not the result of popular anger, but the result of a desire by foreign countries to destroy its role, even by violating all international laws and people’s rights.”
Assad continued, “This support was renewed repeatedly, including most recently. President Putin experienced some of what Syria has experienced during the war on it. There were plans for the Russian state, the successor of the Soviet Union, to be mired in wars on terrorist, radical, or separatist grounds. The examples are many, from Chechnya to Georgia and then Ukraine. Putin, by defending Syria, wanted not just to reaffirm the strong alliance between us, but also restore balance to an international order that was dominated since the disintegration of the Soviet Union until Putin’s election by a unipolar system led by the United States and its NATO allies.”
Many Russian delegates are visiting Damascus, including most recently Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister. The man delivered a strong message of support, as strong as those sent out by Sergey Lavrov, Pushkin and others before, or perhaps slightly stronger.
Continued Russian, Iranian support, amid signs of change in U.S. and Western attitudes
Assad’s certainty about the alliance with Russia and Putin’s support is paralleled by great confidence in the Iranian position. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has sent out more than one clear message of support.
Assad said, “The Iranian ally understands that the war on Syria also targets Iran, and the entire resistance camp and its backers.” The Iranian leadership spares no occasion to send signals of support. It was not strange then that President Hassan Rouhani, during his visit to Ankara, made clear Tehran’s desire for a change in Turkish policy on Syria, “which contributed to the war but ended up damaging the largest part of Turkey’s role in the region.”
These remarks are particularly important at this time to respond to all those who believe that current Iranian-American rapprochement could change Tehran’s stances toward the Syrian leadership. As he tends to do, Assad gave an accurate strategic analysis without exaggeration for the regional and international situation, with the following broad outlines:
•“It is not the Iranian ally who will change when it comes to Syria. It is more consistent in its positions than some believe it to be. It is America and the West who have started signaling a change. Terrorism is in their homelands now. An American has blown himself up in Syria, and a Frenchman of Moroccan origin has killed Jews at a synagogue in Brussels.”
•“The West will not be able to do more than it has done to change the equation. They talk about lethal and non-lethal weapons. All kinds of weapons have been available to the armed terrorists for a long time, including anti-aircraft weapons.”
•“Current and former U.S. officials are trying to reach out to us, but they do not dare because of pressure by lobbies.” Here, Assad recalled former U.S. President Jimmy Carter when he wanted to come to Damascus in 2007, but declined to come later saying that the U.S. administration did not let him. He then added, “If a former U.S. president cannot come, then how can a current official come?” It may be understood then that the U.S. senator from Virginia who recently praised Assad and his army’s efforts against criminals was not an isolated case or an individual initiative. The details will be told with time.
•“The Americans have proven themselves to be more rational than the French, even though they are all complicit in the conspiracy. It seems that one of the main causes of French militancy has to do deals with Saudi Arabia and others.” Assad made references to how President Nicolas Sarkozy’s term ended with a financial scandal, just as was the case with Jacques Chirac. “All those who plot go, but Syria remains and triumphs, with all the spectrums of its people and army.”
•Perhaps the country most hostile to Syria after Israel, for Assad, is Saudi Arabia. “Since the Beirut summit where Riyadh offered full normalization with Israel, the hostility intensified. Saudi Arabia wanted to give everything to Israel in return for nothing. It was obsessed with the U.S. reaction following the attacks on the World Trade Center in which Saudis were involved. We, my friend President Emile Lahoud and I, were against it. I threatened Prince Saud al-Faisal to deliver a speech that would torpedo the initiative if our reservations and the reservations of the resistance were not taken into account. I told him at the time: You will sign the initiative and then you will leave, but we will be the ones to bear the rest because we are a country of confrontation [i.e. on Israel’s border]. The king was angered, but we were able to amend the initiative as much as possible, and it came out less worse. I can go back further in time, to our disputes in 1989 under late President Hafez al-Assad. Disputes continued in other summits, but we were keen on bringing Arabs together to support resistance. When the crisis began in Syria, King Abdullah sent his son Abdul-Aziz who asked us to rapidly crush the uprising, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and offered to help.” For Assad, the motivation behind the Saudi position lies somewhere between “U.S. dictates and personal grudges, producing this hostile attitude from Saudi Arabia.”
As for Qatar, “it continues to support and finance the militants. However, it is currently seeking rapprochement with Iran, and expressing readiness to change some of its positions. But what matters is delivery. We are sick of slogans. What matters is for Saudi, Qatar, Turkey, France, and Western NATO powers to stop backing terrorism if they really want change.”Turkey’s attitude, meanwhile, has not changed yet. But Assad realized that the Iranian move toward Ankara “cannot exclude calls for an end of Turkish support for terrorism, as was clear from the remarks made by President Rouhani.”
Supporting terrorism in Syria prompts Assad not to exaggerate when it comes to predicting the timing for when the conflict could end. “We have stopped the conspiracy at the strategic level. The state will triumph even if will take time to eliminate all terrorists. However, determining the time when the war will end is not logical right now. What is important is that the leadership, the army, and the people are now absolutely certain that victory will come. When Syria triumphs, all Arabs and the resistance will have stopped one of the most insidious plots for their region,” Assad proclaimed.
What about the opposition abroad? Assad, who had just met with his rival in the election Hassan al-Nouri, did not have a new answer to this question. He said, “We have said we are in favor of dialogue and we engaged the worst of the militants. But what will dialogue with the opposition abroad achieve? Nothing, because, to put it simply, this opposition has no influence whatsoever. It has no ties to the people or the land. They were sold illusions by Western and Arab countries, which they then sold to the people. The elections have exposed them. What comes after the elections is not like what came before. People have said their word and we must respect it.”
What about Geneva then? “It’s over because the circumstances have changed,” Assad said.
Lakhdar Brahimi under suspicion
The conversation then moved on to the mediation efforts led by Lakhdar Brahimi. Assad frowned and became somewhat annoyed. The international envoy had just remarked that Syria could turn into a failed state or another Somalia. Assad recalled the third meeting he had with Brahimi in December 2012, when Brahimi advised him to step down.
From Assad’s statements, one could come out with the impression that the Syrian president never saw Brahimi as an honest broker, not just now, but even in the past, during the war on Lebanon. He has suspicions as to why Brahimi has been consistently appointed to posts in the international organization. No Arab can occupy these posts without American consent, and America could never consent to someone who is a friend of a state of resistance like Syria, he said.
Aoun an honest man
Assad has a tendency to engage in broad strategic analysis rather than focusing on the details, even though he knows them very well. Perhaps Lebanon has become a small detail amid the major international transformations taking place. The most important and permanent ally Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is always the foundation.
“Sayyed Nasrallah has expressed nothing but support and sympathy that neither Syria nor Syrians will ever forget. In Lebanon, we and the Sayyed have the same vision.” In this vision, personal emotions and coolheaded analysis come together. The choices of the resistance allied to Syria “has converged toward ending terrorism coming out of Lebanon or mitigate it to the greatest extent possible in spite of internal divisions,” Assad said.
General Michel Aoun seems to be the closest to Assad’s heart and mind in the battle of the presidential election in Lebanon. Assad recalls many events involving Aoun, including when the man came to offer his condolences for the death of the Syrian president’s brother, and how he reconciled with a senior Syrian officer who was in charge in Lebanon during Aoun’s uprising against Syria.“Since then, Aoun revealed himself to be an honest man who was honorable in adversity and then honorable in reconciliation, and who remained loyal to his position toward us, despite all storms and temptations,” Assad said.
“We do not interfere in the affairs of any Arab country, but we welcome the election of Aoun as president for the interest of Lebanon and brotherly relations,” he added, saying that Aoun is a patriotic non-sectarian figure who believes in Arabism and resistance.
“Make Syria even better than it was”
More than ever, Assad seems confident that “victory is inevitable, even if will take time.” He explained how the state has been developing plans for reconstruction and for the refugees’ return, as well as the economy and living conditions in the coming phase.
At the beginning of his third term, Assad gives the impression that the largest part of the war is now behind him. Perhaps the coming phase will confirm this, especially if the army retakes Aleppo soon. When the major cities are in the hands of the state, the real work will begin to “make Syria even better than it was.”
It is no coincidence for a visitor to Damascus to see many banners signed by longstanding Damascus companies. Clearly, the Sunni capital will have a major role in reconstruction, “just like all communities have contributed in defending the homeland and preventing sectarianism from destroying the secular state.”
In this regard, Assad believed there are no sectarian causes for the war, even if some in the media have been overstating sectarian phenomena. The evidence is extensive in the president’s mind, and he cited “the takfiri-terrorist attacks on moderate Sunnis and Sufis.”
Assad has great hopes amid the great roar of the battle guns. Clearly, the beginning of the third term will be a race between hope and guns, though the president hopes the war will end eventually. Had it not been for the noises of war, Damascus, with its traffic and pedestrians, the presence of the state, and the hustle and bustle at its restaurants, appears almost normal, if not very normal.