Bashar al-Assad’s mind

Just before the latest attempt at a ceasefire began, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad visited the newly captured Damascus suburb of Daraya.

Several photo opportunities showed him looking relaxed and tie-less; praying and meeting soldiers. Later the president explained that the Syrian state is “determined to retake every inch of Syria from the terrorists … and to rebuild everything that has been destroyed in the past”.

Such language is completely at odds with the various Geneva agreements made so far and the statements coming out of Washington and Moscow, yet Assad feels confident enough to make them nevertheless.

Despite the complexity of Syria’s sustained conflict, all roads seem to head to the presidential palace and the fundamental question as to the future of the 51-year-old leader.

Notions of any form of transition or Assad standing down appear to be completely off the table as the regime’s grinding momentum continues to slowly accrue territory.

What does he think?

Yet, despite Assad occupying such a central position in the conflict there is an absence of more critical explorations as to his thinking.

Too often he is pigeonholed simply as a “bloodthirsty dictator” – an evil actor who could have walked straight out of a Hollywood script.

Yet, in a sense by simply putting Assad into a murderous dictator box, actors involved in the Syrian conflict fail to understand his motivations, actions and shine a brighter light into the opaque world of his country’s decision-making structure.

So what does Assad think?

“Simply calling Assad evil and leaving it at that abrogates a responsibility to better investigate what powers and influence he does and doesn’t hold and to reveal the political science that has kept his regime in power”.

We know from his semi-regular longform interviews that he sees himself as carrying the flame of Syrian unity against a conspiracy of foreign actors looking to destroy Syria.

We know that he denies the existence or use of barrel bombs as he does reports of his government blocking aid to Syrian civilians around the country.

We know that his consistent line is that he is fighting against terrorists and his future will be decided by the Syrian people and nobody else.

Reading between the lines and connecting Assad’s rhetoric to reality reveals more. The fact that he has been willing to deploy all the repressive tools of the state against the uprising and essentially outsource the defence of the country to Hezbollah, Iranian, Iraqi and Russian forces, while simultaneously encouraging the growth of pro-regime militias, is evidence of the lengths he is willing to go to stay in power.

In retrospect there was only a short gap between the start of the uprising in March 2011 and Assad’s decision to go “all in” to preserve his rule.

Disconnected from reality

Syria is a conflict without any breaks and Assad is a leader who is liberated from any doubts as to his actions and the need for justifications.

This liberation is protected by his continued insulation from events and outsourcing of action.

In 2012 we were granted a glimpse into the parallel world of the Assad inner circle when personal emails from his wife, Asma, were leaked.

The emails showed discussions on what handmade furniture from Chelsea boutiques to invest in and what songs the president should download on iTunes.

Assad’s insulation from actions carried out in his name are increased by the notion of him being a dictator who cannot dictate.

Back in 2011 the then British Foreign Secretary William Hague argued that Assad’s ability to direct policy was seriously limited by those who surround him and that in fact he was a hostage of powerful relatives.

In Carsten Wieland’s book, Syria at Bay, an anonymous journalist described Assad as “holding the opinion of the person he last spoke to”, while his sister, Bushra, once referred to him as “stupid and nervous”.

Simply calling Assad evil and leaving it at that abrogates a responsibility to better investigate what powers and influence he does and doesn’t hold and to reveal the political science that has kept his regime in power.

As “Kremlinology” looked to uncover the thinking of the Soviet leadership, there is a need for an “Assadology” to scrutinise the nuts and bolts of the regime’s operation.

This is not normalisation, nor does it signify any acceptance as a guaranteed future for Assad going forward.

It is not enough to simply hate Assad, people must seek to understand him, however unpalatable that may seem.

Author: James Denselow


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