Thursday 18 April 2013

Reading into last night’s Assad interview

Assad taking questions last night

My paraphrasing of this morning’s op-ed penned in Arabic by publisher Abdelbari Atwan for his London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi:
There are no ifs, ands or buts. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is boxed in security-wise and militarily. But he has broken free on the airwaves.
Midway through the Syria crisis, he said, “We rule on the ground and they rule the airwaves” – meaning his Arab critics controlling the major satellite TV networks and channels.
This has partly changed since he made that remark. Proof is, whenever he gives an interview to a semi-obscure foreign newspaper, his statements are widely circulated by the global media. And the public and intelligence services hasten to read between his lines.
Assad yesterday chose to speak on the occasion of Syria’s Independence Day through Al-Ikhbariya, one of the Syrian TV stations blacked out by the Arab League (through satellite operators ArabSat and NileSat).
The two interviewers had their questions thoroughly prepared in advance. They only had to read them verbatim, since improvisation is not only taboo but also fraught with danger.
Here are the six signals Assad transmitted via the televised Qs & As:
1. “The West paid heavily for funding al-Qaeda in its early stages. Today it is doing the same in Syria and other places, and will pay a heavy price in the heart of Europe and the United States.”
In other words, he is telling the West: We are both facing the same enemy. If you asked me, I am prepared to join hands with you to defeat the terror group.
2. “There is no option but victory. Otherwise it will be the end of Syria.”
He is effectively linking his stay at the helm to Syria remaining whole as a state. He is explicitly raising the possibility of Syria splintering along sectarian and ethnic lines in case the armed revolution succeeded in bringing down his regime.
3. “I cannot believe that hundreds [of rebels] are entering Syria with their weapons while Jordan is capable of arresting any single person with a light weapon for going to resist in Palestine.”
Other than being correct, the remark makes plain that Assad’s media, if not security and military, gloves are off with Jordan.
4. Recep Tayyip Erdogan trades on Turkey to promote himself. His Justice and Development Party’s foreign policy of zero problems with neighbors transmuted into zero politics, zero insight and zero ethics.
The personal attack on Erdogan and the berating of Turkish and Jordanian politics show how much Assad is smarting from Ankara and Amman allowing rebels and arms free movement across their respective Syria borders.
5. Kurds are a natural and integral part of Syria’s social fabric. And unlike the Ottoman Empire, Syria never massacred its Kurdish residents.
That’s a clear attempt to distance the Kurds from Turkey and the West by highlighting their Syrian patriotism.
6. “The attempt is to invade Syria with outside forces from different nationalities… The aim is to make Syria subservient and submissive to the Big Powers and the West, or to obscurantist, extremist forces.”
It is too early to judge whether such scaremongering works or not.
Unlike his previous speeches and interview, President Assad seemed on edge last night. Otherwise he would not have warned the conflict could spread beyond Syria’s borders.
“He slammed the door shut in the opposition’s face, chiefly in the face of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. He said the opposition did not represent political parties, had no presence on the ground, lacked popular support and was not free from outside control.
“All these charges contradict the recent charm offensive of his aides, who were insisting that the regime welcomed dialogue with its opponents.
“Assad yesterday classified his regime opponents either as apostates or mercenaries. Such categorization means he has elected to press ahead with a bloody military solution. All his regime’s previous talk of dialogue was meant to gain time, no more no less.
‘Being offshore does not shame Syria’s independent national opposition figures. Had they chosen to stay in opposition at home, they would have been thrown in jail or put six feet under.
“Chances of a political solution not only receded last night, but also evaporated.
“This means, we are staring down the barrel of a gun loaded for a long war, which can only end with one side steamrolling the other…”