The Buzz

Bashar al-Assad's Sick Sense of Humor

Here Bashar al Assad goes again. Joining the throngs of world leaders eulogizing the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, the Syrian presidency recently released a statement on its Facebook page declaring that Mandela’s “history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world, in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.” Emanating from the regime of a dictator who has presided over the multi-year – and seemingly unending – slaughter of “his own people,” few could overlook the statement’s profoundly offensive irony.

The absurdity of such a statement being issued by the Syrian regime suggests that Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke – and indeed, he is. What’s more is that this is only the latest iteration in a longstanding pattern of caustic comedy by the Duck of Damascus.

In October, after the Norwegian Nobel Committee made its regrettable decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons", Assad proclaimed that the prize “should have been mine” because of his acceptance of the Russian-sponsored plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal. After the deal was struck, Assad even had the audacity to ask the UN to equip his troops and supply armored trucks to ship out Syria's chemical materiel, a request that was rightly rejected outright: “There is no way that the regime will be supplied with equipment that could be used by the army to kill more innocent Syrians,” said one Western diplomat.

When massive demonstrations erupted in Egypt last summer against then president Mohammed Morsi, Mr. Assad, oddly enough, came out in support of the Egyptian protestors. “This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests,” he said. Assad’s information minister, Omran Zoabi, told the Syrian state-owned news agency SANA that the “crisis can be overcome if Mohamed Mursi realizes that the overwhelming majority of the Egyptian people reject him and are calling on him to go.” Again with the hypocritical irony.

Not all of Assad's wisecracks are intended for public consumption, though. In a series of leaked emails composed over the last few years, written both before and during the uprising, Assad ridiculed the notion of domestic political reform in Syria, mocked the Arab League monitors who were then in Syria, and made a number of sexist jokes.

People generally tell jokes in an attempt to make others laugh. After all, a joke isn’t a joke if the only person laughing is the one who told it. Yet, as should be abundantly clear by now, Assad doesn’t want us to laugh with him – he wants to laugh at us. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Dictators have long excelled at stridently expressing their defiance and perceived unassailability, and Assad is no exception. What sets him apart from many of history’s other tyrants is his penchant for doing so via twisted quips and banter.

What sets Assad apart from real comedians, though, is that he is the opposite of funny. But so far, the joke appears to be on everyone else.