Assad Admits Difficulties, but Projects Confidence
Posted Aug 30 2012 3:35am
BEIRUT, Lebanon — During an interview that was broadcast Wednesday night, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria sought to rally public support for his fight against insurgents that has strained his military, subjected his government to defections and assassinations and delivered unrelenting, deadly violence to every corner of the country.
Appearing confident and relaxed and sitting in what he said was the presidential palace in Damascus, Mr. Assad said Syria was facing a “regional and international war” that would “take time to resolve.”
His statement was a rare, belated acknowledgment that as the conflict entered its 18th month there was no sign that either the government or any of its disparate groups of opponents was strong enough to prevail. Mr. Assad also spoke frankly about other difficulties his government faced. He talked of the defections by those ranging from his prime minister to army conscripts, but framed them as part of a “self-cleaning” process that was ridding the country of traitors.
Above all, though, Mr. Assad seemed intent on using the friendly interview, which was carried on a private television channel owned by his cousin Rami Makhlouf, to convey a sense that the government’s survival was inevitable. He said the country was moving forward and the situation getting “better.”
“When we get this done,” he added, “Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis.”
A supporter of the president, a 40-year-old government worker who watched the televised interview in Damascus, where he lives, said it left him feeling reassured. “I think the president proved it’s a conspiracy, targeting divisions and weakening the state,” said the worker, who gave only his first name, Ammar. “The president did this interview to say, ‘I am still in my palace, and control everything.’ ”
Events in Syria on Wednesday defied attempts to say which side was in control. Rebel commanders in Idlib Province said they had begun a major offensive against a military airport, destroying 5 to 10 government helicopters. But the government quickly asserted that its soldiers had “bravely” repelled the attack and that no helicopters had been damaged.
The army continued its broad assault on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, a stronghold of opposition since last year that has brought the rebellion to the capital city. In one of the conflict’s bloodiest episodes, hundreds of people were killed last week in fighting in the town of Daraya, in circumstances that remain murky. Refugees from Daraya who fled to Lebanon this week said that opposition fighters were among those killed, but that the army had also executed scores of civilians as it stormed the town. Mr. Assad did not mention the fighting in Daraya during his interview.
In an article published Wednesday in The Independent, a British daily newspaper, some Daraya residents raised the possibility that opposition fighters had been behind some of the killings. The article quoted one woman as saying that she saw at least 10 bodies on the road before government troops entered the city. A man was quoted as saying that some victims, including civil employees and off-duty conscripts, might have been killed because of their association with the government.
On Wednesday, activists in the eastern suburbs of Damascus said at least 11 civilians were killed during attacks by government troops using warplanes and helicopters. Syria’s state news media accused the rebels of killing civilians in the suburb of Zamalka, saying that “mercenary terrorists” also planned to fire mortar rounds at the army in an effort to provoke a violent response.
Mr. Assad defended the army’s fierce assaults on towns throughout the country, saying his Syrian opponents were carrying out “foreign designs,” and as traitors, could be executed. “This is clear, and we should not be romantic about it,” he said. Speaking of the stalemated fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, Mr. Assad called the battle “critical” and said it would take time.
As he has in the past, Mr. Assad denied that the uprising against him, which started with protests in the spring of 2011 that the government countered with deadly force, represented any meaningful, homegrown call for change.
“Many people were tricked in the beginning; they thought that what is happening is a wave of the Arab Spring,” he said.
“The foreign element that was not clear in the beginning is clear now,” Mr. Assad said, taking special aim at the government of Turkey, a neighbor that has raised the possibility of military intervention in Syria.
Turkey’s foreign minister said Wednesday that it would urge the United Nations Security Council to consider the creation of “buffer zones” along the border. Turkish officials said the zones, to be administered by the United Nations, would protect thousands of refugees trying to enter Turkey.
Syrian Army defectors have also called for such zones, though they envision them as staging grounds for attacks on the Syrian military.
Mr. Assad called such zones unrealistic, and accused the Turkish government of bearing “direct responsibility” for the bloodshed in Syria.
Given the gravity of events in Syria, some parts of the interview seemed bizarre, including a meandering discussion about the lack of sophistication in Syria in the field of human resources and another about the news media.
Mr. Assad broached the delicate subject of defections from his government, which have included that of his prime minister and a general who was said to be one of his closest friends, though he dismissed them as the actions of malcontents, mercenaries or people Syria was better off without.
“We should not be upset about it,” the president said, contending that the government had never prevented people from leaving. “It is a positive process.”
Mr. Assad’s comments were quickly derided by antigovernment activists, including a 35-year-old in Damascus who said it seemed as if the president was living on the planet Mercury.
“It is shameful,” said the activist, who requested anonymity because he feared for his safety. “He is seeing the situation improve, while we see massacres.”
Talal Atrissi, a political analyst in Lebanon who watched the speech, said Mr. Assad seemed more relaxed than he had in previous appearances, suggesting that perhaps he felt he had weathered the worst of a crisis that began weeks ago, when four of Mr. Assad’s top security officials were assassinated and insurgents staged assaults on Damascus and then Aleppo.
“He talked about the crisis in a normal way, which is something new,” Mr. Atrissi said. “He talked about the defections, and Turkey, where in the past, he never recognized these problems.”
“It’s as if the regime has taken a deep breath,” Mr. Atrissi said.
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut; Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Mai Ayyad from Cairo; and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.