Syrian President Bashar al-Assad To Me: “Ask The People If I Am Their Dictator”
In December 2010, days before a street vendor in Tunisia self-immolated and effectively set the Middle East region afire with a wave of popular uprisings, I had the opportunity to accompany an academic delegation to Bashar al-Assad’s presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. I was the only journalist in the delegation, so I was able to ask Assad a series of questions about his leadership style (does he consider himself a dictator?), political and economic reform in Syria, and his country’s tenuous relationship with Israel, among other topics.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA—Following the 2010 International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments conference in Beirut, a group of 25 UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students sat down to meet with Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, in his palace in Damascus in late December 2010.
The president, after giving a warm welcome, immediately opened the floor for an informal question and answer session. No topic was off limits.
“I do not know if people would call me a dictator,” Assad said, when asked to comment on his leadership style. “Go out into the streets and ask the people if I am their dictator.”
Assad, a youthful and popular president according to some, has been in office for more than a decade and stands at the helm of what many have called a benevolent dictatorship, although his Ba’ath Party government has been criticized for its behind-the-scenes corruption, human rights abuses, support of terrorism and refusal to lift emergency law.
However, the mild demeanor of the soft-spoken man who sipped lemonade from a champagne glass in front of the group seemed completely at odds with these criticisms. Assad, a former ophthalmologist who trained in London, answered the group’s questions in very western terms.
“I appreciate different points of view in my government,” he said, in response to an inquiry about his early push for progressive reform in Syria, a push that came to a curious halt a number of years ago. The question suggested that perhaps Assad is contending with beneficiaries of the status quo.
“I’m concerned with how to bring the whole society to the [political] middle or left,” he said. “And yes, not everyone agrees with me.”
“But at least they understand me,” he added.
Assad said he is currently working to “revolutionize,” or reform, the laws of Syria and privatize many of the country’s industries, including media, banking and the university system.
Education is a top priority, as approximately 60 percent of the Syrian population is under the age of 25, and education is the engine of reform, Assad said.
“It’s not enough to have reforms. We have to educate people and provide more public awareness so people can actually believe in the reforms,” he continued, indicating that Syrians are not yet ready for major change.
“To open the door, we have to first open the mentality,” he said.
Assad, who speaks highly of President Obama, said Syria’s tenuous relationship with Israel hinges on US intervention. A peace treaty is not enough, he said. Both parties need to “bury the hatchet,” which can only be done if outside parties, the US and Europe, step up and serve as unbiased arbiters.
“Peace is the only choice we have,” he said. “And if we don’t achieve peace with Obama [as president], then we won’t achieve peace with anyone.”
But domestically, “we are moving in the right direction,” Assad said with a certain confidence. “Our strength is not the government. Our strength is secular society.”
Assad, who hails from an Alawite Shia Muslim family, said his secular government sets him apart from other leaders in the region and is also the source of his popularity.
“The Prophet Muhammad did not speak of an Islamic state, but of a nation for the Muslim people,” he said, an interpretation that deprives neighboring regimes of their claims to political authority.
Coincidentally, at the time of the interview, people in Tunisia were already protesting the government of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A domino-like crumble of autocratic governments in the region ensued and many expected Syria to be no exception.
In fact, the youth of Syria, the demographic Assad considers his highest priority, called for “Syrian Anger Day” in early February. The Facebook page responsible for organizing the revolt, titled “Syrian Revolution 2011,” has over 50,000 fans, but only hundreds showed up to protest.
It seems Assad, who astutely punted the dictator question to the people in the streets of Syria back in December, knew exactly what he was doing—but that was then. The Arab world is now on fire for democracy. Only time will tell if Syria, too, will catch aflame and go one of three ways: the way of Egypt and Tunisia, the way of Yemen and Bahrain, or the way of the status quo.
At the time of publication, protesters have flooded the streets of Dara’a in southern Syria, setting the Ba’ath party headquarters ablaze and demanding the fall of the regime, the release of political detainees, an end to the secret police and emergency law, along with other freedoms and reforms. State television has reported that security forces refrained from using live ammunition until instigated by armed protesters. Dozens have been killed. To date, President Bashar al-Assad has not officially commented on the unrest.