In a recent interview (May 30), Syrian president Bashar al-Assad offered an unusually poised and confident take on Syria's current predicament.
He raised serious questions about the opposition — some of them not unlike those posed in the West. He minimizes the prospect of a Golan front against Israel and the meaning of the S-300 deal with Russia. He responds like a politician to questions about his intentions in 2014 and what he doesn't say, such as refusing to declare his candidacy when he could easily have done so, is at times as interesting and perhaps as important as what he does say. For example, his willingness "in principle" to go to Geneva.
One need not agree with Assad's views in order to learn something from them. But for those making policies aimed at toppling the regime, the interview illuminates the many challenges, and some potential opportunities, on the long road ahead.
"Assad said exactly what needed to be said," explained a close observer of Syrian affairs. The president's position has never been as strong in the last two years as it is today, and his military forces are operating in a more cohesive manner, notwithstanding the fact that he has lost effective control over half the country.
The interview was conducted on Al-Manar, the Lebanese station affiliated with Hezbollah. Assad suggests that the regime's opponents in the region and the West have failed in their elementary responsibility to understand the environment in which they are operating.
Assad explains that the battle against the regime is being "frustrated" by two factors — the regime's staying power itself and the "ignorance [of the regime's opponents] of the situation and not reading the Syrian situation accurately."
Assad himself has been all but blind to the authentic and popular aspects of the revolt, but he offers a telling observation when he notes the advantage gained by Damascus from the West's wishful thinking and its misguided and insistent interest in viewing Syria through the artificial prism of "the revolution's titles." If you believe that the sun is shining — that the rebels are democrats committed to the most benevolent ideas of the Arab Spring — when it's raining, you are bound to get wet.
Assad remains a child of the Baath Party, and he relies on its classic worldview as he seeks to understand and explain some of the central elements of Syrian affairs today. The decades of Syrian struggle for control of its sovereign destiny — the heroic era immortalized by George Antonius' "Arab Awakening" when modern Arab nationalism was born — offer Assad a comforting and all-embracing context for his views.
Assad notes correctly that the popular view that the battle for Qusair is somehow related to a strategy aimed at linking Damascus with the Alawi coastal heartland is "irrational — just look at a map."
On the broader question of Syria's division, Assad makes two important points. Contemporary Syrian political life has more than anything been a struggle for an assertion of geographic unity, whether in the face of colonial efforts to divide the Arab world into states or subsequent efforts to reduce Syria itself into sectarian statelets. "Our ancestors tried this with the French when the French proposed dividing Syria, but our ancestors were cautious about this. So could we, the grandchildren, be less cautious."
But when he becomes a prisoner of his own prejudices, the Syrian president is guilty of sins similar to those that he places at the door of the rebels and their sponsors. He minimizes Hezbollah's contribution to the war effort even as it escalates. Those concerned by this development — up to and including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Moon himself — are only interested in "strangling the resistance."
Invoking the "Axis of Resistance" offers a too-ready and inadequate template for Assad to rationalize Hezbollah's presence in Qusair and elsewhere in Syria as part of "the battle against the Israeli enemy and its agents in Syria in Lebanon." Never forget, he insists with almost religious certainty, the enemy is not me, it's Israel.
Yet he acknowledges that a military response against future Israeli military attacks on Syria, including an activation of the Golan front, would signify "a radical and dramatic change." Neither the people nor the regime, Assad properly suggests, is ready for such steps.
The failure of the opposition to organize is a gift that Assad is fully prepared to exploit. He sarcastically dismisses the most recent idea of Moaz al-Khatib, "to give me 20 days and 500 people." He is prepared to be magnanimous about Geneva. "The meeting formula is a good one. We are going to Geneva II in an official capacity as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people." But whom, he asks, is the opposition representing? It is a question that Assad is not alone in posing.
Assad's response to questions about his own political future should be familiar to candidates everywhere. If the people want it, Assad says that he will stand for re-election in 2014. Yet he feels the need to make the opposite and more interesting point. "If I feel that the Syrian people don't hope for it, it is axiomatic that I will not run in elections."
Assad believes that he is defending all the achievements of this heroic period of the Arab renaissance (Baath) against an opposition which has been captured by the interests of foreign powers — in the West and in the heart of the Arab world, Turkey included — who seek above all to reverse the achievements that created the modern Syrian state.
"It is clear that the case is not related to an office (the presidency). The battle is the battle of a nation, not of an office," he said. Syrians, he suggested, are dying not to protect him or the regime but for the far grander and more evocative idea of Syria besieged by "an international war launched on Syria and on the resistance approach" that the Baath and a generation of Syrian nationalists popularized more than a half century ago.
Assad is widely viewed by his adversaries as variously offensive or delusional, a dictator and war criminal who has distinguished himself by lack of concern for his own people. But those who summarily dismiss his views ignore Sun Tzu's command to "know your enemy" — in Assad's case, the man whose choices are the keys to war and peace in Syria and perhaps beyond.