Caabu director, Chris Doyle writes in the Telegraph about Bashar al Assad's interview with the BBC - Why Bashar al-Assad looks so relaxed
This March will be the fourth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, a conflict that has seen this ancient cradle of civilisation become a mass graveyard. 210,000 people have been killed, with almost half Syria's citizens displaced, blighted by every imaginable horror of war –including chemical weapons.
But still at the helm remains Bashar al-Assad. World leaders, including President Obama, called for him to step aside way back in August 2011.
In many ways he appears more entrenched than ever. Back in the early months of that uprising he was under serious threat from mass protests, the likes of which Syria had never seen.
But in early 2015, his hold on power in the part of Syria he controls appears solid. Far from calling for him to step down, the United States istacitly collaborating with the Assad regime against Isil.
It is no wonder then that the Syrian President is happy to hit the international airwaves. His latest interview with Jeremy Bowen on the BBC reiterated much the same messages.
Syria was supposedly confronted by an international conspiracy, that the crisis was from the outside not the inside. Perhaps most galling to Syrians watching was the routine denial of any wrongdoing by his armed forces, certainly no use of chlorine nor chemical weapons.
Assad maintains that there were no civilians in besieged areas in Syria. The UN disagrees saying there are eleven such areas. In Al Wa’er, a large neighbourhood in Homs, there are at least 75,000 still under siege. There were many civilians who were evacuated from the Old City of Homs last year.
Assad refused to blame the army for anything, wise perhaps, given its centrality in keeping him in power. “There are no indiscriminate weapons.”
Bowen rightly challenged him on the use of barrel bombs. The response: "We have bombs, missiles and bullets ... I haven’t heard of [the] army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots.” (There are many things Assad has been accused of but not abusing cooking pots). Perhaps his armed forces did not tell him but even just the day before such weapons were being dropped on the city of Douma.
Assad’s clipped short responses showed a defiant president unwilling to concede on any point, or accept any blame. His point was that he and the regime was there to stay.
Does he have reason to be confident? The answer is both yes and no.
The US-led coalition attacks on Isil targets even inside Syria were accepted by the regime, not least as it backed its narrative that the issue was about “terrorism".
Assad stated that third parties shared information on the strikes. Many suspect that there have been direct communications and various European governments have toyed with the idea of how to engage the regime. American officials have avoided repetitions of the call for Assad to go and have also backed UN and Russian attempts to broker talks. All this may provide comfort to Damascus, but there is unease.
The regime is outwardly secure but has lost control of much of Syria. Devoid of income, it is beholden to its patrons in Iran and Russia, a loss of independence that riles regime loyalists.
Forces of the very countries that Assad accuses of “supporting terrorism” are engaged in daily bombing raids inside Syria. Regime figures fear they may succumb to the temptation of hitting government targets too. Above all, in the Alawi heartlands, many of loyalist supporters are more vocally critical about the failures of the regime angered by how much they too have lost in blood and treasure.
The real question remains how long the Syrian, regional and international parties to this conflict are going to allow this disaster in Syria to endure. Bashar al-Assad had no answers to this, but just as troubling, it seems nobody else does either.
Chris Doyle is Director of Caabu, Council for Arab-British Understanding