Bashar al-Assad gives interviews in a library in a guest house in the grounds of the presidential palace in the west of Damascus. The palace looks down on the city from a crag; the guest house is a discreet half-mile or so from the main building, just off the spine of the hill, at the end of its own long, straight drive. Gardeners keep the lawns and trees neat. But outcrops of rock and scrub hint at what this once was – a windy, wintery Syrian hilltop on a high mountain plateau, coveted over the centuries by defenders or invaders of Damascus. Perhaps because I have been across the front line to the suburbs held by armed rebels, no more than five miles or so from the palace, I have a sense of the war pressing in, and the weight of history of this ancient country. The palace is a workplace; the Assads live elsewhere. The marble guest house is built in the style of a small hotel; the library leads off a central majlis, or sitting area, with perhaps 30 armchairs. The fountains at the corners of the majlis were dry when I visited on 8 February. It felt as if the place had been opened up for our benefit.
In the library the section containing books in English has a copy of the autobiography of King Juan Carlos of Spain, inscribed affectionately by the author. Next to it, unsigned, are Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir of his time at the Pentagon, and Piers Morgan’s The Insider: the Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade.
I wondered idly as I waited for the president to arrive about the conclusions he might have drawn from the books, if he had read them; about the preoccupations and strange intersections of the lives of royalty, politicians and celebrities in the west. The powerful classes in Europe and the United States live, at least partly, in public. But what goes on when the president, his siblings and his cousins talk business, which these days means the conduct of the war, is a family matter.
President Assad disappears from Syrian television for weeks on end. His wife, Asma, who grew up in a Syrian family in London, is rarely seen on the news, though she has a presence on Instagram.
When the president’s aides told me he had arrived, I was taken across a polished floor from the library to a sitting room, more intimate than the majlis but still large. I was expecting the president to exhibit some sign of strain. But he had not noticeably changed since the last interview I had done with him, in 2010, five months or so before Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in Tunisia, immolated himself outside the governor’s office in his dusty home town, setting off the chain of events that is still shaking the Middle East.
President Assad ushered me to a cluster of sofas and armchairs at one end of the room before the proper interview started. He talked about how fast the region was changing. He blamed Saudi Arabia most for the catastrophe that has been breaking over Syria for almost four years; for arming and financing rebel groups; and for the Wahhabi variant of Islam, which provides an ideology for the jihadists. It made no difference, he said, that the Saudis have rounded up thousands of jihadist suspects inside the kingdom. It was simply a sign that they had lost control of their own creation. Islamic State would not rest until its self-declared caliphate included Mecca and Medina. Assad’s views on jihadists and Saudi Arabia would not have been out of place at a think tank in Washington, DC.
In person, Bashar al-Assad, who is a trained ophthalmologist, is extremely courteous. It is difficult not to have a polite conversation with him. He smiles quite a lot and stands back to let others enter or leave a room first. And although he can look awkward in photographs he is self-possessed. He must have experienced great strain in these four years of war. Western leaders often age noticeably in office, even enclosed in cocoons of security in cities without the Damascus daily soundtrack of artillery fire. Compare pictures of the candidate Barack Obama with those of the man heading for the end of his second term. But President Assad, who is 49, did not seem to have been worn away much, physically, by the past few years.
What have changed are the questions that he has to answer, and his position in the world. I reminded him of the obligations of belligerents, under the laws of war, to protect civilians. He offered a vigorous defence of the behaviour and actions of the Syrian armed forces and his own conduct throughout a war that has led to the death of as many as 200,000 people and to several millions becoming refugees. He rejected evidence that there was a period of peaceful demonstrations in the spring of 2011 before the shooting started. In fact, he insisted, protesters had used deadly force from the start; the proof was the number of policemen who were killed in the first few months of fighting.
The president’s most controversial statement to me was a flat denial that Syrian forces had used barrel bombs – large tubs of explosive and projectiles dropped from helicopters – against areas where civilians could be killed. The attacks have been well documented. I have seen the aftermath of the kinds of explosion they cause in Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. President Assad also dismissed as “propaganda” statements by the United Nations that his government was blocking humanitarian access to besieged areas. He showed every sign of believing what he said. His position is that he is fighting terrorism that is inspired and funded by foreigners and driven by extremist religious ideology, and that the rest of the world needs to come round to his way of thinking. I asked about the allegation that his men have left IS alone and have moved to eliminate the middle ground by concentrating on the armed groups that are favoured by the west. I suggested he had done it to offer Syrians a false choice, between his regime and the jihadists. He denied it, unsurprisingly.
Up until the Arab uprisings started in 2011, Bashar al-Assad and Syria were seen as potential allies of the west, despite his resolute support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. He saw Syria as a bridge between the Arab Middle East and Europe and the US. The Blair government considered offering him an honorary knighthood. The Queen received the president and his British-born wife in London. After his father, whom he succeeded as president in July 2000, Bashar was seen as a harbinger of a new generation, a breath of fresh air on the stagnant Arab political scene.
But even before the war there were signs of the stubbornness and sense of certainty that he must be relying on now. When we spoke in 2009, during the war between Israel and the Palestinians in and around Gaza, Assad displayed absolute certainty about the way things were in the Middle East, and was not particularly interested in debating even subtle variations on his thesis. Better relations with the west were not a big enough prize to dilute his opposition to Israel or his support for its enemies.
Bashar al-Assad by André Carrilho
Leaders always want to project certainty, consistency and strength, but in any human being there should be room for doubt. Perhaps certainty is a necessary quality in a war
leader. But the Syrian war gets more complex by the month. If ever a crisis needed flexibility, suppleness of mind, it is this one.
At the corner of Souk al-Hamidiyeh closest to the Umayyad Mosque in the centre of Old Damascus, the market stalls are built in and around Roman ruins. Their awnings hang off a line of battered grey stone colonnades. After almost four years of war, the well-off tourists who used to come here are just a warm memory for the traders. There were never enough of them to overwhelm the place, and in this section of Souk al-Hamidiyeh, the most important bazaar in the city, the vendors go on selling school exercise books, papers and magazines, fresh pomegranate juice and, at one table, items celebrating the Assad family and some of their associates.
To understand Bashar al-Assad, you must understand that his father, Hafez, president from 1971 to 2000, intended to found a dynasty. Among the small objects arranged almost devotionally on the trader’s small table are fridge magnets, small modern icons, depicting scenes from the lives of the Assad family. One shows Bashar as a general, wearing military fatigues and sunglasses. On another magnet he is using binoculars, perhaps to survey the positions of his enemies, or the deployment of his own forces. A bestseller features a small black-and-white family snapshot of Bashar and his brothers as children, posing informally in a garden with their parents.
Hafez al-Assad was part of a military junta that seized power in Syria in 1963. By 1970 he was Syria’s sole leader; that he was able to bequeath the presidency to Bashar without opposition as he died in 2000 was his last great achievement. Until he took power, Syria was unstable; coup followed coup.
Like all journalists who visit Damascus, I have been asking for an interview with Bashar al-Assad since the civil war started. Last autumn I managed to contact the right people, who agreed that the interview would happen when, in their view, the time was right. They gave us a date about three weeks ago. I think the president is speaking out more now because he is feeling more secure. The Syrian armed forces are still cohesive, even though they are being forced to call up older men. With their bombing raids, the Americans and their allies, at the very least, are keeping Islamic State and other jihadists from taking more territory in Syria and Iraq; bombing on its own will not defeat them, and might attract more recruits, but it is also a serious constraint on what they can do. At the same time, the Americans appear to be softening their rhetoric against the Assad regime. The fear seems to be that Syria without the Assads could become even more of a danger to the region. The chaos in Libya since the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi is at least insulated by hundreds of miles of empty desert. Syria, on the other hand, is right in the centre of the Middle East.
President Assad might have started a journey that would have been inconceivable even a year ago: slowly, very slowly, moving from pariah to bulwark of the teetering state system in the Middle East. The view from the presidential palace is brightening. No wonder he decided it was time to talk.
Residents of Douma following air strikes by forces loyal to Assad. Photo: Mohammed Badra/Reuters
Assad on barrel bombs, Isis and what keeps him awake
Jeremy Bowen Mr President, you’ve lost control over large areas of Syria, Islamic State has emerged, there are perhaps 200,000 Syrians dead, and millions have lost their homes. Has Syria become a failed state?
Bashar al-Assad No, as long as the government and the state institutions are fulfilling their duty towards the Syrian people, [we] cannot talk about failed states. Talking about losing control is something completely different. It’s like if you have invasion of terrorists coming from abroad and the government is doing its job in fighting and defending its country.
JB You’ve talked about the influence of terrorism, as you call it, from the very beginning. But I was able as a reporter to go to some of those early demonstrations . . . and people there were not saying they wanted an Islamic caliphate – they were saying they wanted freedom, democracy. Do you think you got it wrong?
BA I will tell you that during the first few weeks many policemen were killed. Shot dead. I don’t think they were shot dead and killed by the sound waves of the demonstrators – so it was just a fantasy to talk about this. We have to talk about facts. From the very beginning the demonstrations weren’t peaceful. Some who joined those demonstrations, they wanted democracy, that is true, but that’s not the general claim.
JB You know the accusation that has been made: that you have concentrated your forces in recent years against the non-jihadist parts of the armed resistance, and that you have tried to give Syrians essentially a false choice, between you and between the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, by trying to eliminate the middle ground. Perhaps it’s worked well as a political tactic, hasn’t it? Was that your idea?
BA Obama answered your question when he said a few months ago that waiting for, or depending on what they called the so-called moderate opposition, was a “fantasy”, it was only a pipe dream. This is the reality . . . Even in the western media now they are talking about the Isis and al-Nusra and al-Qaeda affiliate organisations and groups prevailing on the ground. It doesn’t happen suddenly; it’s illogical, unrealistic to have a sudden shift from moderate to extremist. You have the same grass roots.
JB I’ve interviewed people, and so have many other journalists and human rights people, who say that they have suffered badly at the hands of Syrian soldiers . . . Human Rights Watch on 30 January this year said that forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, quote, “have deliberately and viciously attacked civilians in opposition-held areas [using] indiscriminate weapons, most notoriously barrel bombs”.
BA This is [a] childish story that keeps repeating in the west. Why? Again, [you have] somebody who’s against his people, and against the regional power and the great powers in the west, and survives. How? If you kill the Syrian people they support you, or they become against you? As long as you have the public support it means you are defending the people. If you kill the people they’ll be against you. That’s common logic, common sense.
JB What about barrel bombs? You don’t deny that your forces use them?
BA I know about the army. They use bullets, missiles and bombs. I haven’t heard of the army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots.
JB Large barrels full of explosives and projectiles which are dropped from helicopters and explode with devastating effect. There’s been a lot of testimony about these things.
BA They’re called bombs. We have bombs, missiles and bullets.
JB But you wouldn’t deny that included under the category of “bombs” there are these barrel bombs, which are indiscriminate weapons?
BA No, there are no indiscriminate weapons. When you shoot you aim, and when you shoot, when you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians. Again if you’re talking about casualty, that’s war. You cannot have war without casualty.
JB It is the responsibility under international humanitarian law for belligerents on both sides to do everything they can to protect civilians, and the accusation against the Syrian army is that . . . you are not respecting humanitarian law by protecting your own people. What do you say to that?
BA First of all we’ve been attacked in Damascus and in Aleppo; we’ve been attacked by the rebels, not visa versa. They’ve been attacking the civilians with mortars, so you have to retaliate and defend your people. That’s self-evident. Second, again, you are talking about somebody or a government who is killing its people and the people supporting the government. This is a contradiction. There’s no logic in it. What is the answer? How can you have support and kill the people at the same time?
JB You’ve been very harsh in your criticism of the Saudis. Now the Saudis say they are against Islamic State; they are frightened of Islamic State because Islamic State do not want a royal family in Saudi Arabia. So isn’t it logical that they want them out? Why would they support them?
BA First of all the source of this Islamic State ideology, and other al-Qaeda affiliate groups, are the Wahhabis that have been supported by the royal family in Saudi Arabia. So just to say that “we do” and “we don’t”, it doesn’t matter. It’s what you do – what . . . action . . . you are taking in order to prove that what you are saying is correct.
JB Do you talk to the Americans? There are American planes in the air above Syria the whole time. Do you co-ordinate?
BA No, because they don’t talk to anyone unless he’s a puppet. And they easily trample over the international law, which is about our sovereignty now, so they don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them.
JB But I’m curious that at a time when there’s the American military in the air above Syria, and your people are in the air, there haven’t been any incidents between the two. That suggests to me surely that someone is talking to someone here?
BA That’s correct, that’s correct. But again there’s no direct co-operation only.
JB Is it via Iraq? That’s what some people have said?
BA That’s true, through a third party – more than one party: Iraq and other countries. Sometimes they convey [a]message, general message, but there’s nothing tactical.
JB Do you see yourself as the great survivor now of Middle Eastern leaders? President Obama called for you to step down as early as 2011. In 2013 there were lots of reports that you’d fled to a Russian warship in the Mediterranean. But you’re still here, your family are still here. Do you think, looking back on it, that you’ve had a lucky escape?
BA No, for one reason – because it wasn’t about me to be a survivor, it was about Syria, it was about terrorism, it was about changing a state and president because they don’t like that state or president, they don’t like their policies. That’s what it’s about. It’s not [a] personalised problem.
JB But what a price to pay. Syria’s in ruins. There are hundreds of thousands of people dead. You’ve been the commander; you must bear command responsibility for some of that?
BA According to the constitution and according to the ethics, your job is to prevent your country [from crumbling]when it’s under attack, not to flee and run away – and that is what we’ve been doing.
JB What keeps you awake at night?
BA Many reasons that could affect any human. Life. It could be personal, could be work.
JB Your job?
BA Could be the job, could be personal. I’m a human. What could any human be affected by?
This is an edited version, courtesy of BBC News, of Jeremy Bowen’s interview with Assad in Damascus on 8 February
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and a regular New Statesman writer