In his first interview with a Western journalist since Syria's seven-month uprising began, President Assad told The Sunday Telegraph that intervention against his regime could cause "another Afghanistan".Assad chose his interviewer, Andrew Gilligan, skillfully, as the actual interview is filled with praise for the ruthless mass murderer - and it resembles the infamous Vogue puff piece inthe Assads in a number of ways:
Western countries "are going to ratchet up the pressure, definitely," he said. "But Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. The history is different. The politics is different.
"Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?
"Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region."
When you go to see an Arab ruler, you expect vast, over-the-top palaces, battalions of guards, ring after ring of security checks and massive, deadening protocol. You expect to wait hours in return for a few stilted minutes in a gilded reception room, surrounded by officials, flunkies and state TV cameras. You expect a monologue, not a conversation. Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, was quite different.Wow, sounds like a really hard-hitting interview!
We sat, just the three of us, on leather sofas in Assad’s small study. The president was wearing jeans. It was Friday, the main protest day in Syria: the first Friday since the death of Colonel Gaddafi had sunk in. But the man at the centre of it all, the man they wanted to destroy, looked pretty relaxed.
On Thursday night, the beginning of the Muslim weekend, Damascus’s Old City was heaving with people having a good time. Men and women were mixing freely. Alcohol was widely available. A pair of Christian Orthodox priests, in their long cassocks, walked through the crowded alleys, and small Christian shrines were tucked away in the corners. The regime is successfully pushing the message that all this is at risk. “I don’t like Assad, but I am worried that what follows could be worse,” said one of the partygoers. On Wednesday, Damascus witnessed a large pro-Assad demonstration: Western journalists who observed it say that the participants did not appear to have been coerced.
Assad himself could not be further from a ranting, Gaddafi-like Arab dictator. His English is perfect — he lived for two years in London, where he met his wife. In conversation he was open, even at times frank. “Many mistakes,” he admitted, had been made by the security forces – though no one, it seems, has been brought to book for them. He could both make, and take, a joke. A former president of the Syrian Computer Society, he sometimes explained things in computer terms.
Comparing Syria’s leadership with that of a Western country, he said, was like comparing a Mac with a PC. “Both computers do the same job, but they don’t understand each other,” he said. “You need to translate. If you want to analyse me as the East, you cannot analyse me through the Western operating system, or culture. You have to translate according to my operating system, or culture.” That’s the inner nerd in you speaking, I said, and he laughed out loud. I can’t imagine too many other Arab leaders you could get away with calling a nerd.
Assad lives in a relatively small house in a normal – albeit guarded – street. He believes that his modest lifestyle is another component of his appeal. “There is a legitimacy according to elections and there is popular legitimacy,” he said. “If you do not have popular legitimacy, whether you are elected or not you will be removed – look at all the coups we had.
“The first component of popular legitimacy is your personal life. It is very important how you live. I live a normal life. I drive my own car, we have neighbours, I take my kids to school. That’s why I am popular. It is very important to live this way – that is the Syrian style.”
That might not amount to much against the pile of corpses in Homs, Hama, and elsewhere, but from conversations with residents in Damascus at least, it does in fact seem to make Assad somewhat better esteemed by his own people than many other Arab rulers.
It doesn't even appear that Gilligan asked Assad to deny whether he threatened to shoot hundreds of missiles at Tel Aviv if Western forces intervene in Syria's bloodbath. I mean, he was so polite in his modest study, why ask something that might dampen the mood on the same day that 40 people were murdered by his soldiers?
Was this interview arranged by another PR firm hired by Assad to burnish his image? Or is Gilligan just that much of a fan of Arab despots?
See also Nir Rosen - in Al Jazeera - describe how the Alawite minority in Syria holds all the political and military power.