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Troubles from Assad’s Syria

Three weeks ago, I settled down to watch an exclusive interview that Syria’s embattled President, Bashar al-Assad, gave to the news channel, Russia Today. Enticing titbits had already been reported in other media. My appetite was whetted and my curiosity was not just political. It was personal.

Over three decades ago, while attending an international student conference in Damascus, I had met the current President’s father. Our delegation had been led into Hafiz al-Assad’s office, literally a study in chiaroscuro. It was the office of a man isolated by his immense power of control, full of files and papers and, half in the shadows, another man, clearly a confidant, who resembled him, and who was in fact his brother. Just a few years later, that brother attempted a coup d’etat and ended in exile. Bashar al-Assad grew up, therefore, knowing that danger could come from those closest to you. No doubt, he was also schooled by his father in international relations. Among other things, his father believed that, sometimes, Syria’s interest was furthered by ensuring that some neighbours were in chaos.

When I met him, he was already notorious for the decision to intervene in the Lebanese civil war. On the side of the Christians, not his fellow Muslims. Never mind the scandal felt in much of the Arab world. His cold logic had led him to believe that it was in Syria’s interest that the civil war not be settled quickly. Therefore, he intervened to help the weaker side.

I was curious to see if the son reminded me of the father. It turned out he did and he didn’t.

The interview was given in his palace, a light if cold-looking room. The interviewer made sure we knew that the palace had just been redecorated, a point intended to deliver the overall message that al-Assad wanted: he was confident and he planned to stay in Syria. I later discovered the interviewer is the granddaughter of the last Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze (the later President of Georgia), someone who would have surely known the elder al-Assad. The meeting with the son was in room flooded with light. There were no shadows. Physically, as well, his tall, almost tubular frame, which makes his head appear to be the bud on a stalk, was quite different from his father’s. His voice is almost a warble and seems unthreatening.

But he speaks in complete sentences, answering questions fluently and with rapidity.

They were the answers of a man with a focused mind. They also showed that he had learned considerably from his father. Although he sometimes spoke with a twinkle, his words were bayonets.

Just before the interview took place, the UK’s Prime Minister had publicly announced that he was ready to offer al-Assad safe passage if he left Syria. Al-Assad calmly told his interviewer that he was going to live and die in Syria.

With equally soft-spoken calm he also told her that there had better not be outside military intervention in Syria. Otherwise, regional chaos would follow. Outwardly, he made it out to mean that instability in Syria would automatically destabilise its volatile neighbourhood. Given his father’s legacy and what he himself has done in neighbouring Lebanon, however, it could just as easily have been a threat.

It would mean, in that case, that if he feels he’s going down, his last line of defence will be to deflect everyone’s attention by setting off a regional firestorm. One last characteristic of the father came across in the interview: his ability to make and break alliances with cold logic. Asked about his relations with Iran, considered a threat by the Arab Gulf states, he replied that he wanted good relations with a neighbour.

Asked about Turkey, he said Syria will continue to have good relations with Turkey, just not with the current Prime Minister, Teyyip Erdogan. The latter, he said, seemed to think he had become a new Ottoman sultan who could dominate and interfere in the Arab world. With the turn of a phrase, he was appealing to Arab nationalism.

This is the man, therefore, that the US, several member states of the EU and some Arab states have been trying to replace.

Those efforts are gathering momentum. Qatar has just helped broker the creation of a new Syrian opposition council, which replaced the previous ineffectual and unrepresentative one.

France was the first European country to recognise the council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and the UK quickly followed suit.

There is talk of lifting the embargo on providing the opposition directly with arms (although they have long been flowing to selected groups from Qatar and elsewhere).

The key question is, however, whether we can be sure that the provision of such arms can lead to a military resolution of the Syrian crisis. Al-Assad is a man, like his father, who will go to great lengths to prolong the war, if he cannot win it.

He is likely to try to do that, if he feels the need, by destabilising the region, opening fire on Israel and perhaps arming militant groups, with regional aspirations and the Gulf rulers under their sights.

If that happens, we will stop discussing the trouble in Syria. Our attention will be taken up by the many troubles exported from Syria.

John Attard Montalto is a Labour member of the European Parliament.

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