Assad’s TV Interview And Russian-American Deals

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Independence Day speech stresses his confidence of winning the civil war, Sami Kleib writes. Meanwhile, the US and Russia are working out their positions.

al-monitor Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) is interviewed by Syrian TV channel Al Ekhbariya in Damascus, April 17, 2013. He said the West will suffer the consequences for what he said was its support for al-Qaeda militants in Syria's civil war. Photo by REUTERS/SANA.

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us, syrian, russian, bashar al-assad

Apr 19, 2013

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used the words “terrorism” and “terrorists” 30 times during his interview [Wednesday] with the Syrian television station Al Ekhbariya. He used the words “apostasy” and “takfiri” six times; he uttered the word “war” nine times; and “colonialism” and its derivatives five times. The opposition was mentioned 18 times in one single answer, when he criticized its overall conduct, accusing opposition members abroad of harboring anti-nationalist sentiments. [The interview was broadcast on Syrian Independence Day.]

This then is a “new type of war” led by the West under American leadership, with the participation of Arab and non-Arab regional countries such as Turkey. To these entities, the issue is a matter of “life and death” and the regime, “which is fighting takfiri forces,” has found it useful to dig up history and expound on the adage that says, “When the Muslim Brotherhood is vanquished, then Syria and its society will return to normal.” This means a military victory is necessary to reach that end. [A takfiri is often defined as a Muslim who accuses other Muslims of apostasy.]

Assad wanted to remind people that the “conspiracy” he has been warning of since the beginning of the crisis has become a reality. He repeatedly sought to emphasize that the situation is better than it was at the beginning of the crisis, to reach the inevitable sole conclusion that “there is no choice before us but victory. Failure to achieve it would mean the end of Syria.”

On the television screen, form and content merged. The interview was conducted in a quiet atmosphere; pictures of heroes of the [1925] Great Syrian Revolt against the French adorned the wall. On the president’s right stood a bookcase, a symbol of calm and tranquility. The tops of some green trees peeked from beyond the windows, as if they were eavesdropping on this spring day conversation. Assad smiled, exuding tranquility. So did the two journalists, among them one Iraqi, who refrained from interrupting the president with any potentially embarrassing questions. Everything and everyone oozed tranquility, in complete contrast with the war raging outside.

Assad wanted to present the world with a picture of a president who was confident that the battle was progressing in his favor, with victory inevitably smiling upon him in the end, even if this time around he did not make many references to the army.

Is the president’s confidence justified?

Developments on the ground do suggest that the army has in fact made progress in some strategic areas. Information points to armed factions beginning to negotiate with various intermediaries of the regime in order to reconcile and reach an agreement, following the domination of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda militants over a large part of the landscape. It is rumored that negotiations have been successful in some battleground areas, and that weapons are only being delivered to trained factions, with other groups being completely excluded. Syrian authorities estimate that there are currently 300 armed factions or groups in Syria, all at odds with one another.

These developments coincided with the establishment of a significant rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. The Syrian government’s delegation, which visited the Russian capital, recently heard reassuring talk from that country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov, among others, where Russian officials unequivocally stated that their support for the Syrian regime would remain strong no matter the cost. They also said that Washington had all but abandoned its demand for Assad to step down, even if it still found itself needing to proclaim otherwise from time to time. Visitors to Moscow also heard important news about Lavrov and his American counterpart, John Kerry, beginning to discuss the makeup of the regime and opposition’s delegations to the negotiations, as well as discussing technical details related to peace talks. The Russians also told the Americans to go look for a delegation that would represent the opposition in the negotiations since the regime’s delegation was ready to begin its work.

The Russians stood alone in the last G8 summit with everyone else opposing their Syrian policy. In spite of this, their will prevailed, and the summit’s closing statement included a request for negotiations to commence. They also succeeded in excluding from that statement any talk about the necessity for Assad to relinquish power. Kerry returned home to testify before Congress that “the most important task before us is to meet and implement the Geneva Agreement. Time is our enemy. The sooner we reach a solution, the better.”

In this regard, the harmony between Moscow and Washington is clear. From the heart of Turkey, during a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Lavrov made it a point to say, “The Friends of Syria represent only one faction of the Syrian opposition, and are therefore making negative contributions to the Geneva Agreement.”

Is it a coincidence, then, that Kerry and Lavrov talked about Geneva at the same time and in two different locations that are completely hostile to the Syrian regime? While it is true that the Geneva Agreement stipulated a transitional period and the transfer of power, it never touched on Assad stepping down.

The Russians don’t trust the American administration much, a feeling which may be reciprocated by Washington. But Syria has become part of larger issues between the two sides. Nothing prevents understandings from occurring in stages, even if some believe that it is not in Washington and its allies’ interest that a solution be reached now while Syria is subjected to repugnant and wanton destruction.

The American and Russian desire to energize international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s role has not changed. The Algerian diplomat, who has experienced war and ways of ending it in his home country, bluntly told his interlocutors in Moscow and Damascus that stopping the violence would not be predicated on an international decision, but on understandings and compromises reached between internal Syrian forces. Therefore, internal work toward that end must go hand in hand with the army’s continued efforts to thwart the armed factions and regain control over the strategic areas that have remained in these factions’ grasp for many long months.

The Russians spare no opportunity to try to convince the opposition of the need for dialogue and expand the scope of those willing to participate in such a dialogue. Every time a delegation from the regime visited Moscow, it would be asked about the fate of kidnapped opposition activist Abdul-Aziz al-Khair. But noteworthy this time was that Lavrov himself said that his country did not possess any concrete information about Khair’s whereabouts. He told his visitors that Moscow’s information came from a statement made by the president of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) abroad, Haytham Manna, but that the Russian leadership did not know for sure whether Khair was held by Syrian air force Intelligence or some other faction.

The head of the opposition Syrian coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, has seized on the international developments. However, he seemed to doubt everything that was said about international or Arab support for the opposition. He wrote on a social networking site — which has become one of his few avenues for expression as a result of his claims that he has been marginalized by satellite stations — “Do not trust any country — [simply] rely on yourselves. They will abandon us to fight each other until everything is lost.”

All the preceding serves as a basis for Assad’s confidence that the situation has improved, and that the army would now be able to capture any area controlled by the militants. He went even further this time, sending a stern warning to Jordan. People familiar with Assad know that this warning might prompt the Jordanians, who face internal problems of their own and have been negatively affected by the Syrian crisis, to re-evaluate their position. But they also know that through his warning to Jordan, Assad has sent messages that penetrated that country’s borders. He bluntly told Washington and other Western countries training Syrian and Arab militants in Jordan that the ongoing genocide might spread to neighboring nations, when the terrorism that they exported returns to haunt them as well.

What do we understand from all this?

We understand that the battle will endure much longer, and that Assad has made up his mind that the war must continue until the end. The problem is that the armed opposition espouses a similar philosophy demanding that the war continue until Assad’s regime is toppled. The war will therefore endure and escalate. And even if the Russo-American rapprochement gives rise to some hope, the battle does not seem any closer to being won.

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