Jeremy Bowen’s interview with Bashar al-Assad last night was revealing on a strategic and a personal level. On a strategic level the interview shed some light on the fact that some “information” over air-strikes now passes from coalition forces to government forces (via third parties). On a personal level, Assad appeared calmly defiant and relaxed – even bringing himself to laughter on a couple of occasions; but, most importantly, he was also completely unapologetic about the suffering incurred upon the Syrian population over the course of the last four years, denying all charges against him. In fact, he goes as far as to say that he is fighting for the Syrian people “in order to protect civilians”. With figures suggesting that 220,000 people have now been killed in the conflict, around 9 million displaced from their homes, and a further 3.7 million people made refugees; this view borders on delusional.
There have been strong suggestions that the western stance towards Assad has softened of late. John Kerry’s recent comments that it is time for Assad and his government “to put their people first and think about the consequences of their actions”, do not concentrate on the need to replace Bashar al-Assad. And the fact that there is now information, passed through third parties, from coalition to Syrian forces, shows this to be no longer at the top of their agenda. Assad is insistent that he does not communicate tactically with coalition forces. Likewise, coalition forces claim that there is no place for Assad in their plans. Nonetheless, information has clearly been passed between the two.
The US-led, coalition air-strikes have been concentrated on ISIS forces. President Obama is expected, tomorrow, to ask Congress for more authority specifically to fight ISIS. And Jordan announced that it has carried out 56 airstrikes against ISIS in the last three days. Clearly the extremist group have become the coalition’s no. 1 target in the conflict and their barbaric executions have provoked outrage and fear around the world. This is of great benefit to Assad. As well as partially sidelining the violence he has brought against his own people, it also means that he is now effectively receiving military aid with every air-strike that hits ISIS forces. Assad’s decision to take part in the interview and his relaxed but defiant exterior perhaps, therefore, points to a confidence in his current position; four years since the start of the war and he certainly looks no closer to being ousted.
His demeanour, however, did not portray any concern for the people subjected to such suffering. When pressed on civilian casualties inflicted, his response was, “that’s war”. Similarly, all reports – including those of the UN Security Council – seem to confirm the Syrian forces’ use of inhumane barrel bombs, yet President Assad was able, not only to completely deny the use of barrel bombs, but also to joke about using “cooking pots” instead. It painted a picture of little remorse and, maybe, one of delusion. He referred to points raised by Bowen as “fantasy” and “unrealistic” and “illogical”, yet his insistence that he has the “public support” and that he has been merely “fighting terrorism from the very beginning” rather than subduing his own people, indicates a fantasy of his own. The war has mutated into one involving many different factions and the violence cannot be pinned solely on one side but he seems unaware of his culpability. Equally, there are significant parts of the country that do support the Syrian government but his view that he is fighting in order to “protect civilians” could be seen as "unrealistic" and "illogical", as well as delusional.