Today, embattled Syrian President (and frontrunner for next victim of the Arab Spring) Bashar al-Assad made his first public address since June. Assad struck some familiar cords insisting that the unrest in his country was due to a foreign conspiracy, that in actuality he had the overwhelming support of the Syrian people, and that he would respond with an “iron fist”.
Much like his odd interview with Barbara Walters a few weeks ago (see video here), this address echoed the delusions of fallen leaders like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Libya’s Qaddafi. In the Barbara Walters interview Assad says “no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person”, apparently forgetting the 5,000 plus people, mostly unarmed civilians, that the UN estimates have been killed in Syria (Syrian rights groups put the figure much higher). And as debate within much of the international community revolves around the responsibility to protect civilians, given Assad’s failure to do so, Assad today hit on the curious statement, “I am not someone who abandons responsibility”. Tens of thousands of Syrians imprisoned and often tortured might beg to differ.
Yet, unlike Ben Ali, who caused a YouTube sensation across the Arab world with his last ditch speeches to retain power or Qaddafi with his strange rainless umbrella appearance and blatant calls of going house to house and causing the streets to run with blood, Assad has maintained at least a modicum of international appeal. China and Russia have blocked any meaningful action by the UN Security Council and countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa have given them the cover to do so. The Arab League has played along with a much maligned monitoring mission that has bought Assad extra time and Iran has provided support in the form of military advisers and internet surveillance expertise, at the very least.
The reasoning for these remnants of support can be attributed to a variety of factors including self-interest, concerns with nuclear weapons, and overall regional security implications of a civil war in Syria, something Turkey’s President Erdogan warned against in the strongest terms yesterday.
Yet the greatest reason for the current state of international inaction (following months of slowly building diplomatic and economic pressure) and the facade of legitimacy Assad enjoys even as Syrian citizens continue to be killed, may be the failure of the Syrian opposition to come together. Michael Weiss, a proponent of robust action to protect civilians in Syria, laments in Foreign Affairs that, “intervention at this moment would be premature, because Syria’s various opposition groups have yet to coalesce into a unified political force worth backing.” Whether the more robust “safe zone” and “no-fly zone” options that Weiss explores are the right responses remains controversial, but the fact that the Syrian opposition cannot agree on what to call for themselves reinforces his larger point.
A lot can change in the coming weeks, as the Arab League observers report again on January 19th, and as the death tolls continue to rise. Perhaps the calculations of those holding back UN Security Council action will be changed. Further delusional statements by Assad may help to speed that process, but continued pressure from country’s like the United States and unity among the Syrian opposition will make the truth of Assad’s delusion all the harder to hide.