Strike Syria and the world will shake

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, Bashar al-Assad accuses Arab leaders of creating a pretext for western intervention in his country

Hala Jaber, Damascus

Published: 20 November 2011

He could have been mistaken for a young business executive. Indeed, it was hard to imagine that the beaming figure in the dark suit who greeted staff warmly as he carried his own bags into the Tishreen Palace was anything else.

Yet this was Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president in whose name more than 3,500 people are said to have been killed in eight months of violence. Armed clashes have escalated to a point where last week Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, an ally, likened the situation to civil war.

The contrast between the maelstrom of killing that has engulfed parts of Syria and the mild manner of the softly spoken leader presiding over efforts to contain it from his hilltop palace could hardly be more stark.

He shook my hand with a smile, led me into a living room for tea and, having been briefed beforehand that my husband was ill, inquired solicitously about his health. “Have faith,” he said, gently.

Only 15 miles from where we sat, the Free Syrian Army, newly formed by defectors from the ranks of Assad’s military, had just attacked an air force intelligence base in its most audacious operation to date.

Assad, 46, is also under fire from international critics, not only in the West but also in the Middle East, where former allies in the Arab League gave him until yesterday to end the “bloody repression” or face economic sanctions.

I asked him how he felt as a father — he has two sons, aged nine and six, and a daughter, aged eight — when he saw images of innocent children shot in the conflict.

“Like any other Syrian, when I see my country’s sons bleeding, of course I feel pain and sorrow,” he said. “Each spilt drop of blood concerns me personally.

“But my role as president is in deeds, not words and sorrow. My role is to think about the steps I should take to prevent more bloodshed.”

The solution, he insisted, was not to pull back his forces, but to eliminate the militants he blames for much of the shooting: “The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighbouring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order.”

As for the Arab League’s attempt to stop him, he dismissed it. The initiative, he said, was aimed at giving the international community an excuse to meddle in his country.

“It’s been done to show that there’s a problem between the Arabs, thus providing western countries with a pretext to conduct a military intervention against Syria.” The consequence of any such intervention, he warned, would be an earthquake that would shake the entire Middle East.

Assad admitted his forces, accused of killing and torturing protesters, had made mistakes (Ugarit) Assad has been in power for 11 years, not long by Middle Eastern standards, but long enough to have made him philosophical about how he is perceived by the outside world. He traced an imaginary graph in the air as he described the peaks and troughs of his international standing.

When he became president at 34 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, the world embraced him as a young leader who had trained as an ophthalmologist in London and could bring fresh perspectives and hope to Syria.

His reputation in Washington took a dive with his refusal to back the Iraq war in 2003 and his support for fundamentalist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas soon attracted opprobrium in other western capitals. He then hit a new low — his finger looped down to illustrate it — with Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in 2005.

The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 heralded a brief revival, during which he found himself courted by leaders in Europe and the United States who were hoping to divide Syria from Iran, its near neighbour and friend.

The Arab spring has seen western support swinging behind protesters eager to eject long-established regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and now Syria.

Syria’s violence has drawn condemnation from former allies in the region such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister.

“No regime can survive by killing or jailing,” Erdogan said. “No one can build a future over the blood of the oppressed.”

I asked Assad whether he accepted that his security forces had been too aggressive towards peaceful protesters and why thousands had been locked in detention centres where torture is said to be commonplace. He acknowledged mistakes but insisted these were the fault of individuals, not the responsibility of the state.

“We, as a state, do not have a policy to be cruel with citizens,” he said.

“The important thing is to look for the wrongdoers and hold them responsible for their actions ... There are mistakes which have been discovered and where the wrongdoers were held accountable.”

Soldiers who have opened fire on unarmed protesters — and officers who have given the orders to shoot — have been detained in cities where some of the worst atrocities have been reported, although many have gone unpunished.

Assad claimed the opposition had exaggerated the number of deaths, identifying as victims people who had later turned out to be alive.

The true civilian toll, his officials said, was not 3,500, as reported by activist groups, but 619. These they divided into three categories: protesters who were killed in the “crossfire” between security forces and armed gangs, the victims of sectarian killings and his own supporters who had been murdered for championing the government’s cause.

“The fact remains,” I told Assad, “that many innocent civilians — women and children — have been shot in the process.”

“A human being cannot turn the clock back but can act wisely in this matter,” he said.

“My role as president — this is my daily obsession now — is to know how to stop this bloodshed caused by armed terrorist acts that are hitting some areas.”

According to Assad, 800 members of the security forces have also died in the conflict. Some have been killed by Islamist elements, others by defectors from the army.

Last week saw fierce clashes in the southern city of Dera’a, where Syria’s uprising began in March with a protest by parents outside the governor’s residence after a dozen children were detained and beaten for scrawling anti-regime graffiti. The security forces opened fire on the families.

Members of the Free Syrian Army ambushed and killed 34 soldiers there last Monday. Amateur video shows what appears to be a tank and other military vehicles on fire.

I asked what message Assad had for the mothers who had lost sons on both sides of the conflict.

“Naturally, as a father, I sympathise with [them],” he said. “I have met a large number of the families of both civilian and military victims. I sat down and talked with them.”

The demands for reform in other countries have ended badly for their leaders. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled from Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt finished up on a hospital trolley in court accused of corruption and premeditated killing, and Muammar Gadaffi, the Libyan dictator, was shot. Assad said Syria was not the same. If it had been, he said, events would already have turned out differently. Demonstrations in his favour have shown he still commands significant support, although the scale of it is impossible to judge.

Two other factors give the outcome in Syria added importance. The first is the sensitivity of its position, bordering Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, among other troubled countries. The second is its religious make-up: the Alawite elite accounting for 12% is dwarfed by the Sunni majority of 74%.

A Sunni rise to power could have unpredictable consequences for Syria’s fragile relationships with its neighbours, analysts believe, especially if militant fundamentalist elements gained influence.

Hafez al-Assad put down an Islamist revolt in the city of Hama in 1982 in a ruthless offensive that left an estimated 20,000 dead. His son seems equally determined to crush any flowering of fundamentalism in the interests of stability, a factor he believes helps to sustain the support for his government in Russia, China and Iran.

Diplomats from London to Washington share the fear that any destabilisation of Syria could make the entire region tremble.

“The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will also continue,” Assad said. “However, I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it.”

Footage appears to show armed rebels killing 34 troops in Dera’a on Thursday (Ugarit News) Assad insisted he was losing no sleep. “I am naturally calm,” he said. “I do not deal with crises emotionally. I deal with them calmly. This makes me more productive and more capable of finding solutions. Stress is negative.”

The position in Syria appears to be polarising in a manner that is causing some of his followers anxiety, however. The threat of an armed insurrection by the Free Syrian Army has been compounded by the 22-member Arab League’s demands for rapid change.

Like their fellow Arab spring revolutionaries elsewhere, millions of Syrians have marched for free elections, the release of political prisoners and an end to police brutality and torture.

Assad said he had begun a process of reform six days after the start of protests in Syria, only to find that some of his opponents had responded by taking up weapons.

“After eight months the picture is clear to us ... It is not a question of peaceful demonstrations but an armed operation,” he said.

He nevertheless intends to hold elections in February or March: “We’re going to have a new parliament. After that we’re going to have a new government. We’re going to have a new constitution. That constitution will set the basis of how to elect a president.”

If he lost a presidential election, he added, he would go. “I’m here to serve the country, my country’s not here to serve me,” he said.

Elections could not be held immediately because although his Ba’ath party was ready, others were not, he said. But he has freed more than 1,700 prisoners, including a prominent dissident, in line with a request from the Arab League.

Assad described the league’s decision last week to suspend Syria as “irrelevant” and said that while the economic sanctions it has threatened would hurt the country, ways had been found to reduce the impact.

He was more preoccupied with the question of whether Arab leaders sympathetic to the West were preparing the way for international intervention, as they had in Libya.

Turkey was reported to be considering proposals for a no-fly zone and a buffer area on the Syrian side of their shared border to protect civilians from bombing. Suspicion is mounting that some form of military action against Syria may follow. If so, would he fight and die, I asked.

“Definitely, this goes without saying and is an absolute.”

Would he fight for his position as president? “Certainly not, for that would be fighting for myself and not for Syria,” he said. “If I am to fight it will be for Syria and the people of Syria.”

The notion seems at odds with the softer, more modern image he has tried to project of himself with the help of his wife Asma, who grew up in London and worked at an investment bank. He said the two of them talked every day about Syria’s problems.

Asked how much their three children knew, he said he and his wife explained the situation to them in terms that under-10s could grasp.

“You cannot lie to them or hide information which they will eventually discover themselves,” Assad said.

“For children, it’s always a case of black and white. People are good or bad, so it’s important to explain the dimensions of the picture they see. The main question for children is: why do we have bad people? You have to explain that such people exist in every society but the majority are good people and they are trying to solve the problem.”

Did his children not see pictures of dead people on television and ask how they were killed?

“Unfortunately, they do and you have to explain to them.”

Assad himself was thrust into the spotlight after his elder brother Basel died in a car crash and he was called back from his medical studies in London as the heir to the presidency.

Father and son have now ruled for a total of 41 years. Would he want his children to continue the dynasty? “I would say this depends first on the personality of the individual,” he replied guardedly.

“I always advise my children to expand their relations with all walks of life in Syria. This expands the individual’s horizons when he or she grows up.”

What if one of them wanted to become president? “Nobody can decide the future of their children,” he said.

“Their future is up to them to choose, not me.”

The substitute president

Bashar al-Assad was born in Damascus on September 11, 1966, the second son of President Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as a police state for nearly 30 years.

Bashar graduated from Damascus University before training as an ophthalmologist at the Western Eye Hospital in London. In 1994 he was called back to Damascus after his elder brother, Basel, who had been groomed to take over the presidency, died in a car accident.

Assad came to power at the age of 34 after his father’s death in 2000. Shortly afterwards he married Asma al-Akhras, now 36, a British-Syrian investment banker who grew up in west London, where she was known as Emma. They have three children, Hafez, 9, Zein, 8, and Karim, 6.

Some political prisoners were released and media restrictions were relaxed slightly. But Assad has been accused of failing to make significant progress on human rights.