Jonathan Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, is writing a book on how to solve the world’s toughest political and economic challenges.
In recent weeks, Western governments have begun subtly shifting their positions on Syria. The Obama administration seems to have quietly dropped its demand that President Bashar al-Assad resign as a precondition of peace talks. Instead, reports suggest it has embraced proposals that would allow Assad to be part of an interim deal. The new approach implies that the White House and its allies believe that the Syrian president might be open to a compromise that could end his country’s four-year civil war.
I met with Assad on Jan. 20 in Damascus — his first interview by an American journalist since 2013. And if there was one clear takeaway from our talk, which you can read in full in Foreign Affairs, it was this: Such hopes are a fantasy. Superficially, Assad said many of the right things, appearing conciliatory and eager to involve Western governments in his struggle against Islamist terrorism. But underneath the pretty words, he remains as unrepentant and inflexible today as he was at the start of the Syrian civil war four years ago. Assad seems to have no idea how badly the war is going, how impractical his proposals sound and how meaningless his purported overtures are. Which means that, whatever Western leaders might wish, the fighting in Syria will end in one of two ways. Either Assad will defeat the rebels. Or the rebels will defeat him — and string him up by his toes.
Visiting Syria today is a strange and unsettling experience. The signs of war are everywhere. Damascus is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and concentric rings of army checkpoints, manned by twitchy soldiers unsure how to respond when a solitary American — I traveled without security but hired a local driver — shows up. (Some were indifferent, others were hostile, and one grabbed my hand and declared, “The Syrian Arab Republic Army loves the American press!”) High concrete blast walls shield most buildings, red-and-white-striped gun turrets loom over intersections, posters of Assad in shades and black military dress hang from lampposts, United Nations aid workers fill the hotels, and the booms and pops of artillery and mortar fire echo from the front, just a few miles away.
Yet despite the siege, cafes and markets are bustling. The streets are thronged with families out shopping, with students heading to school — and with hundreds of thousands of refugees who have more than doubled the city’s population since the war began.
But the most dissonant feature is the man responsible for it all. Assad is tall, slight and birdlike, with a vanishingly weak chin, nothing like the Hollywood picture of a murderous autocrat. From the moment he greeted me — with a smile, a handshake and a high-pitched giggle — at his private office, I entered a sort of Neverland of the dictator’s imagination.
His country may be burning, but all that unpleasantness vanishes at the doorstep of the president’s Greek-revival villa, perched on a hill above town. The luxuriously modern suite where we talked had a huge new iMac on the desk and a model of Westminster Abbey on the sideboard (presumably a souvenir of his years spent studying ophthalmology in Britain, but one that seems jarringly incongruous now that Prime Minister David Cameron has called Assad “completely illegitimate”). Everything was designed to create an air of genteel civility, down to the cappuccino that the expensively dressed president offered. The man himself was jovial, polite and utterly relaxed.
And he was disconcertingly good at presenting himself as a reasonable, rational actor. His critique of America’s Middle East policy, for example, is one shared by many lefties in the West: The U.S. role, he told me, should be “to help peace in the region, to fight terrorism, to promote secularism, to support this area economically” and “not to launch wars. Launching war doesn’t make you a great power.”
But behind the cheery aphorisms and the barely-there mustache is a man so unyielding and deeply deceptive — or delusional — that it’s impossible to imagine him ever negotiating an equitable end to Syria’s civil war.
Assad made that clear in several ways. A shrewd and crafty debater, he overwhelms interlocutors with torrents of language that combine common-sense rhetoric with wild untruths, often in a single sentence. So, for example, no sooner had he (sensibly) conceded, paraphrasing Clausewitz, that he’d never be able to triumph militarily — since “all wars anywhere in the world have ended with a political solution” — than he insisted that “the Syrian people are still with the unity of Syria; they still support the government.” Given that the country’s turmoil began when he savagely repressed widespread protests during the Arab Spring, sparking a popular rebellion, this analysis is more than a little implausible. Especially since his army is now suffering mass desertions and recent protests in Homs and Tartus suggest that even Assad’s minority Alawite sect is turning against him.
In a similar vein, when I asked him about independent analyses showing that his government now controls a mere 45 to 50 percent of the country, Assad (sensibly) reminded me that Syria’s war is not “between two countries, between two armies where you have an incursion and you lost some territory that you want to regain.” But then he (nonsensically) insisted that his army remained supreme and that “wherever [it] has wanted to go, it has succeeded.” Never mind that his forces have been unable to oust the rebels from Aleppo, for instance, for going on three years now.
Assad’s constant pairing of the rational with the absurd was a neat rhetorical trick; it made the latter seem more credible through proximity to the former. And his utter, unblinking conviction added to the effect. Either Syria’s president is an extremely competent fabulist — in which case he’s merely a sociopath — or he actually believes his lies, in which case he’s something much more dangerous (like a delusional psychopath). For why would he ever strike a deal to end a war he thinks he’s winning?
Assad also remains blithely unapologetic, despite presiding over a brutal conflict that has gutted his country, killed some 200,000, rendered more than 7 million homeless and led to Syria’s division into three sectarian mini-states. He insists that he can’t think of a single mistake he’s made: “I would have to go back to officials on the ground,” he told me. “There’s nothing in my mind.” The man responsible for the mass torture of thousands and the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs on civilians says those episodes never really took place: All the evidence has been fabricated by his enemies, he told me. “It’s all allegations without evidence,” funded by Qatar, he explained. So what’s to regret?
Such attitudes don’t exactly augur an openness to compromise.
Nor did his talk about the current negotiations, driven by the United Nations and Russia. When I asked Assad about concessions he might make to help these succeed, he either prevaricated, dismissing the value of confidence-building measures (“It’s not a personal relationship. . . . You don’t have to trust someone”), or rejected them outright. When I suggested prisoner exchanges, he scoffed at the idea.
While he dropped his long-standing insistence that the rebels lay down their arms as a prerequisite to talks — telling me: “We are going to meet with everyone. We don’t have conditions” — he also repeatedly questioned whether there even was an opposition to talk to. And when I asked if he’d agree to any sort of power-sharing deal, he said yes but then insisted that any such deal would have to be affirmed by a referendum. This, of course, conveniently elided the fact that a divided nation (governed by a despot who “won” another presidential term last summer with 89 percent of the vote) could never conduct a fair plebiscite. So much for that, then.
At the start of our meeting, Assad implied that he’d decided to grant the interview now (I first requested it in 2013) because the recent terror attacks in Paris gave him a fresh opportunity to make the case his government has been pushing for years: that he and the West are fighting the same enemy, Islamist extremism, and so are natural allies and should join forces.
But for all his talk about comity and shared interests, Assad — once you cut through his obfuscation, dodges and appeals to reason — made it very clear that he’s ready to concede absolutely nothing to bring the sides together. At the end of the day, the tyrant can imagine but one way for the conflict to end. All his enemies, in the region and in the West, must capitulate and concede the merits of his own twisted arguments. Until then, he’ll keep on killing.