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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue