“There is nothing personal, I’m just a headline,” President Bashar Al-Assad said when questioned about how he feels being called a war criminal in the western media. “The bad president, the bad guy is killing the good guys. It is black and white like George Bush’s narrative. The real reason for wanting to topple this government is because it does not fit the criteria of the West and the United States.”
Sitting next to President Assad was his father-in-law, the director of the British Syrian Society, Fawas Akhras, who looked on thoughtfully. Having been invited to Damascus to attend a two day workshop aimed at expressing the Syrian government’s point of view on the conflict, I had only been told that I would be interviewing the president a few hours beforehand. Now I sat in a ornate parlor room in the presidential palace with journalists representing the New York Times, The New Yorker magazine, and several prestigious think tanks. I was never patted down, put through a metal detector, and did not spot any security staff at the palace.
“We never attacked any Western interests,” President Assad continued, expressing his disappointment that the media does not focus on the rebel crimes committed against Syrian civilians and the continued calls for regime change in his country. “Until this moment, we still have a kind of dialog through different channels with the United States and European governments. We are not that radical. We are very open, we are very flexible, and we are realistic at the same time but that does not mean we will give up our sovereignty.”
President Assad was telling the truth about back channel communications with Western governments, which I deduced was the main purpose of the British Syrian Society. Fawas Akhras is alleged to lunch with a former British SAS commander every week back in the United Kingdom. I also saw him having a meeting at one point with a former British intelligence officer and a Syrian intelligence officer, the British gentleman also getting a private meeting with President Assad the day before. The lines of communication are open, and presumably a post-conflict Syria is already being shaped behind the scenes.
“My feeling is that it is not personal,” Assad said finishing his thought on being accused of war crimes. “My feeling is that it is about ridicule. That they [the West and other external actors] want to change Syria and we are not going to allow this, mainly through funding their proxies that are the terrorists, al Nusra, ISIS, and the like-minded groups that are Al Qaeda affiliated groups but they call them moderate.”
Tall and slim as he sat in his chair, President Assad felt perfectly comfortable talking to the group and had no issues speaking at length or in detail. When you speak, he looks at you and listens intently, then gives an in depth answer. Unlike many other politicians, he does not give short vague responses. He also stays on subject, with a few exceptions. His style is relaxed and very informal but professional at the same time. From the beginning he told us that we should feel free to ask anything and that no subjects are off limits.
Assad finished answering the question by pointing out that if he was a such a bad guy who had been killing his own people, than he could never have stayed in power this long. “How can I be president if the people are against me? This is not a realistic story, it is disconnected from reality. Who supports me, Russia or Iran? They cannot substitute my public support.”
The Syrian President’s answer has some validity. Certainly, the Assad government has demonstrated and incredible resiliency throughout the Syrian civil war. However, I believe that Assad underestimates the amount of trauma his country has been through, and misjudges the extent to which his system of government has been challenged by internal actors, not just a foreign conspiracy as I often heard the war blamed on while in Damascus. This will be touched upon again soon, but first I asked President Assad about the future of Syria and if the country can even be put back together after being torn apart by a brutal, bloody, civil war.