I was a fly on the wall in Assad’s office

If I were in Bashar al-Assad's office as Obama's speech at the White House was televised around the world, I think I would hear the following.

If I were a fly on the wall in President Bashar al-Assad’s office as Barack Obama’s speech at the White House is televised around the world, I guess I would be listening to the following:
 
Assad: What’s going on? We’ve been looking at the podium for the past 30 minutes, and nothing’s happened.
 
Aide: Maybe he has been speaking and we just didn’t notice? (Laughter)
 
Assad: Here they come. Let’s see what he has to say.
 
Aide: More grey hair. The man looks exhausted.
 
Another aide: Who’s the man next to him? He’s pulling funny faces.
 
Wael Nader al-Halqi, prime minister of Syria: You moron. That’s Joe Biden, his vicepresident, also a Mossad agent.
 
Assad: Shut up, all of you. Let me hear.
Silence. Obama speaks.
 
Assad: What? Did you hear what he just said? He is not waiting for the report of the UN inspectors!
 
Omran Ahed Zoabi, the Syrian minister of information: This is unfair! After all the work we put into ensuring the success of their visit! (Laughter) More silence. Obama carries on talking.
 
General Ali Abdullah Ayub, the Syrian army chief of staff: That’s it! He just said it! They are going to attack. I’m going to alert my troops.
 
Aide: Your troops, or the rebel troops?
A fistfight starts.
Furniture is overturned.
 
Assad: Stop at once! (His cellphone rings) Yes, Asma. No, not now. Obama is talking about us right now. No, Asma, later. What? My credit card? Another auction? Not the Christian Louboutin shoes again! For God’s sake, you have more shoes than Imelda Marcos. But I have to go now.
 
Obama is still talking.
 
General Ayub: I know what we can do to stop them. Let’s put human shields around the targets.
 
Halqi: Good idea. Saddam was good at that.
 
Assad: Maybe I’ll put some of you around the targets. (Silence) Relax, gentlemen, it was a joke. (Relieved laughter)
 
Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister: What hypocrisy! (Jeers while repeating Obama’s phrases) To hold us accountable! When your father, may his soul rest in peace, bombarded those Shia bastards in Hama in 1982 and buried them alive, nobody said a word.
 
General Ayub (whispering): But the father killed only 30,000, while the son . . .
 
Assad: I heard that! Besides, Ayub, it’s all your fault. You shouldn’t have used the chemicals.
 
General Ayub: But Mr President, you yourself ordered me to!
 
Assad: I remember exactly what I said. I told you to be “nice to them”.
 
General Ayub: And I heard “gas them”. Maybe the line wasn’t so good.
 
Zoabi: By the way, I found out that we can kill as many of our own people as we want. The world doesn’t care, as long as we don’t gas them.
 
Assad: Indeed. Anyway, Ayub, what are your plans in case they strike?
 
General Ayub: I was thinking about attacking Israel immediately.
 
Assad: Hmmm. Not such a good idea. Yom Kippur is what, two weeks from now? Last time my father attacked them on Yom Kippur, they were almost on the outskirts of Damascus within a few days. We need to think about something else, otherwise we are lost.
 
Zoabi: Wait, listen to this! He is taking it to the Congress! Great commotion. Loud cheers. Cries of “Hallelujah” and of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Great”).
 
Halqi: We are saved! Obama talks about the need for debate and popular support.
 
Assad: This is exactly why I love democracy.
 
Moallem: It’s obvious. He doesn’t want to do it. He saw his buddy Cameron defeated in the British parliament and hopes that Congress will do the same to him.
 
Assad: I knew I could trust the Brits. They are not as squeamish as the Americans. They know when to leave us Middle Easterners alone so we can do our own thing. But have Argentina take from them a godforsaken island with some sheep in the Atlantic, and they will send their whole fleet across the ocean.
 
Telephone rings.
 
Aide: It’s President Putin, sir. He wants to congratulate you.
 
Assad: Mr President, thank you so much. Yes, of course I watched it. You were absolutely right. I know. The world has changed. No, not one superpower any more. How true. Thank you, and God bless you. But Mr President, before you go, just one more thing. The villa you reserved for me and my family? Is it still available?
 
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. He was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992 to 1996 
US President Barack Obama on a recent trip to Europe to discuss the Syrian conflict. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.