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NY Times, Sept. 17 2016
His Position Still Secure, Bashar al-Assad Smiles as Syria Burns
By BEN HUBBARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the day after his 51st birthday, Bashar al-Assad,
the president of Syria, took a victory lap through the dusty streets of
a destroyed and empty rebel town that his forces had starved into
Smiling, with his shirt open at the collar, he led officials in dark
suits past deserted shops and bombed-out buildings before telling a
reporter that — despite a cease-fire announced by the United States and
Russia — he was committed “to taking back all areas from the
terrorists.” When he says terrorists, he means all who oppose him.
More than five years into the conflict that has shattered his country,
displaced half its population and killed hundreds of thousands of
people, Mr. Assad denies any responsibility for the destruction.
Instead, he presents himself as a reasonable head of state and the sole
unifier who can end the war and reconcile Syria’s people.
That insistence, which he has clung to for years even as his forces hit
civilians with gas attacks and barrel bombs, is a major impediment to
sustaining a cease-fire, let alone ending the war.
The new cease-fire, less than a week old, is already tenuous, with
attacks resuming across the country and aid meant for besieged residents
of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, still stuck at the Turkish border.
It has also made Mr. Assad a central paradox of the war: He is secure
and kept in place by foreign backers as his country splinters, although
few see the war ending and Syria being put back together as long as he
Although he remains a pariah to the West, and scores of militant groups
continue to fight to oust him, even his opponents acknowledge that he
has navigated his way out of the immediate threats to his rule, making
the question of his fate an intractable dilemma.
The rebels are unlikely to stop fighting as long as the man they blame
for the majority of the war’s deaths remains.
But fear of what might emerge if Mr. Assad is ousted has deterred many
Syrians from joining the insurrection and may have helped prevent
countries like the United States from acting more forcefully against him.
The result has been a crushing stalemate. Mr. Assad’s standing as leader
of Syria is diminished — and yet stable.
“The problem is that he cannot win, and at the same time he is not
losing,” said Samir Altaqi, the director of the Orient Research Center
in Dubai. “But at the end of the day, what is left of Syria? He is still
the leader, but he lost the state.”
Indeed, recent events give the impression that Mr. Assad has succeeded
in muddling through, without being held accountable.
August came and went with little mention of the anniversary of the
chemical attacks by his forces that killed more than 1,000 people in 2013.
Turkey, a key backer of the rebels, dropped its demand that he leave
power immediately, and the United States has stopped calling for his
And the day before Mr. Assad’s birthday on Sept. 11, for which his
supporters created a fawning website, the United States and Russia
announced a new cease-fire agreement with surprising benefits for Mr. Assad.
Besides making no mention of his political future, the agreement brought
together one of his greatest foes, the United States, with one of his
greatest allies, Russia, to bomb the jihadists who threaten his rule.
Years ago, few assumed that Mr. Assad would join the ranks of the
world’s bloodiest dictators.
Self-effacing and educated as an ophthalmologist, he had not planned on
a political career but was summoned from London by his father and
predecessor, Hafez Assad, when the heir apparent, Bashar’s elder
brother, Bassel, died in a car accident in 1994.
After Bashar succeeded his father as president in 2000, many hoped he
would reform the country.
But those hopes dwindled, evaporating entirely with the start of the
Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when Mr. Assad sought to quell initially
peaceful protests with overwhelming violence.
The conflict escalated from there.
Despite widespread opposition to his rule, a combination of factors has
enabled Mr. Assad to persevere, analysts say. His foes have remained
divided and have failed to convince many Syrians, especially religious
minorities, that they would protect their rights or run the country
better than Mr. Assad.
As continuous battles have ground down his forces, Mr. Assad has been
the beneficiary of significant military support from Iran, Russia and
Lebanon’s Hezbollah — aid much more significant than what the United
States and its allies have given the rebels.
And the rise of jihadist organizations like the Islamic State and the
Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, recently renamed the Levant Conquest
Front, have led many Syrians and some of Mr. Assad’s international
opponents to conclude that he is the lesser evil. While he may be brutal
to his people, the thinking goes, he does not directly threaten the West.
His victory tour on Monday showcased the desolation of the town of
Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold whose remaining residents were bused
out last month after an extended siege by government forces.
In videos released by the Syrian government, Mr. Assad arrived in town
driving his own car, a silver Subaru; fidgeted though a sermon praising
him for protecting Syria; and performed prayers for the Muslim Eid
Then, as martial music played, the camera jumped between images of the
area’s destruction and scenes of Mr. Assad leading a determined
entourage though town.
A reporter stopped him for questions, and Mr. Assad spoke in soft tones
about reconciliation and reconstruction. He mocked his foes as “rented
revolutionaries,” a dig at their foreign backing, and laughed at his
turn of phrase.
His entourage got the cue and laughed as well.
For many Syrians, the message was clear.
“He is a man who wanted to show all Syrians that this would be their
luck if they opposed him,” said Murhaf Jouejati, the chairman of the Day
After organization, which aims to prepare Syrians for a democratic future.
Malik Rifai, an antigovernment activist from Daraya now displaced to
northern Syria, said he felt numb watching Mr. Assad walk the streets of
his empty hometown, but shared a video of a flock of birds that had
flown over as residents were leaving. He interpreted it as a sign that
they would return, he said.
“Those birds were a deep message from heaven, whereas Bashar’s presence
was just a parade, showing the muscles of a weak person,” Mr. Rifai said
in an online chat.
Mr. Assad’s dark suits and calm tones have given him a public image more
sophisticated than that of other Arab autocrats like Col. Muammar
el-Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who often brandished
weapons and gave thundering speeches, threatening their enemies.
“He’s a different kind of bloodthirsty dictator, the kind who shops
online on his iPad,” said Nadim Houry, who oversaw the work of Human
Rights Watch on Syria for a decade. “He’s sort of Arab dictator 2.0.”
Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. Hussein were both killed after foreign
interventions aimed at removing them from power — a fate Mr. Assad
appears to have escaped, even though the death toll on his watch has
exceeded that of his more colorful colleagues.
His perseverance has frustrated those who feel Mr. Assad should be held
“The fact that many leaders are considering or willing to deal with him
today as if he has not gassed his own people or tortured thousands to
death is an indictment of the current policy environment across the
world,” Mr. Houry said. “There is a level of cynicism, a lack of ambition.”
But analysts note many weaknesses in Mr. Assad’s position.
After years of war, he holds less than half of Syria’s territory and his
forces are depleted, making it hard for them to seize and hold new areas.
Military aid from Iran and Hezbollah on the ground and from Russia in
the skies has held off rebel advances, but they have also made him more
dependent on foreign powers looking out for their own interests.
Diplomats who track Syria say that while Iran remains committed to Mr.
Assad, the Russians could negotiate him away if their interests were
protected. And signs of Russian displeasure with Mr. Assad have
In June, Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, visited Syria
apparently without informing Mr. Assad that he was coming — a major
embarrassment for a president who speaks often of national sovereignty.
“A pleasant surprise!” a beaming Mr. Assad said in a video of the
meeting. “I did not know that you were coming in person.”
But Mr. Assad still has significant support in areas he controls,
including among many Syrians who want the war to end and see no
alternative to his rule.
“If God gives him life, I see that he’ll be president until Syria comes
back the way that it was,” said Bouchra Al-Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer who
meets regularly with Syrian officials and knows Mr. Assad.
She dismissed the idea that the violence of Mr. Assad’s government would
make Syrians reject him after the war.
“People love their homeland,” she said. “All that hate and aggression
will go away in the end.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
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