The Buzz

Bashar al-Assad: A Clever Sociopath

President Bashar al-Assad has been a busy man over the past several weeks.  In addition to bombing civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately and starving out his opponents and the civilians who happen to live under their domain, Syria’s strongman-president has conducted several interviews with the western press.  And, in each of these interviews – despite tough questions and pushback from the interviewers – Assad’s strategy is the same: deny that his government bears any responsibility for the absolute destruction of Syria and the suffering of its population.

As one person out of many who has monitored Bashar al-Assad’s demeanor and behavior during this horrific war, it’s a tried-and-true tactic that has worked for him in the past and continues to work for him in the present.  The man has single-handedly killed over 200,000 of his own people with some of the most indiscriminate and inhumane weapons that mankind has to offer (guidance-free barrel bombs casually rolled out of helicopters; chemical weapons that have been banned by the international community, including sarin and nerve agent; chlorine dropped from Syrian aircraft; starvation; the withholding of medical equipment, etc.), yet has consistently acted as if the humanitarian watchdogs, governments, and multilateral organizations accusing him of these things are crazy, naïve, or drinking Kool-Aid created and sold by the United States and its Arab “puppets.” 

If you were expecting anything differently from the most recent interview Assad gave to Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, you will be sorely disappointed.  Indeed, despite constant pushing and probing by a very capable interviewer and journalist, Assad sat in the fancy chair inside his presidential suite composed, calm, and collected, as he always is and always appears to be in public.    

When you think of a bloodthirsty dictator that has cut the lives of hundreds of thousands of people short, most people think about manic and aggressive personalities like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Muammar QaddafiBashar al-Assad’s behavior, however, is precisely the opposite, which is why studying him is so interesting.  He doesn’t yell, scream, or jester violently in the air with his arms when he’s confronted with tough questions.  Nor does he restrict the kinds of questions that journalists ask.  Every topic that a journalist wants to talk about is on the table, which can only be viewed as part of a strategy to make him seem like a credible leader who can defend himself against challenges from prosecutorial reporters.  All of this says something about Assad as a person: he is as clever as he is brutal.

Over the past four years, Assad has allowed four big-name western journalists to interview him.  Barbara Walters interviewed him in December 2011, Charlie Rose talked to the Syrian president a few weeks after the August 2013 chemical weapons attacks, Jonathan Tepperman of Foreign Affairs met Assad last month, and now Jeremy Bowen took a stab at him this week.  But while the questioners were different, the way Assad acted was very much the same: he spoke in a soft voice, presented himself as a statesman instead of an isolated dictator, chuckled to make himself more personable, and parsed words to muddle the definitive and evidence-based claims that his government is committing widespread, merciless humanitarian atrocities against innocent human beings. 

Assad’s time with Bowen is the latest case in point. 

On Syria being a failed state:

No, as long as the government and the state institutions are fulfilling their duty towards the Syrian people, we cannot talk about failed states. Talking about losing control is something completely different.

On Syrians peacefully demonstrating for greater rights:

You in the West called it, at that time, and some still talk about that period as "peaceful-demonstration period" and I will tell you that during the first few weeks, many policemen were killed, shot dead. I don’t think they were shot dead and killed by the sound waves of the demonstrators.

On the use of barrel bombs:

We don’t have barrels. Again, it’s like talking about cooking pots. So, we don’t have cooking pots.

On evidence from the OPCW that chlorine gas was deployed last year:

Chlorine gas exists in any factory, in any house in Syria, in anywhere in the world. It’s not a military material.

On allegations verified by the United Nations that the Syrian army is besieging rebel-held areas in an attempt to starve the population into submission:

[I]f we can prevent the food from accessing those areas, can’t we prevent the armaments from accessing the same areas?

On schools being struck by Syrian artillery and aircraft: