October 10, 2006

Syria's President on Newsnight

Last night Newsnight's John Simpson interviewed one of the more interesting leaders in the Middle East today- Bashar el-Assad- supposedly 'calm and thoughtful with a scholarly precision about his words' but also a firebrand defying Israel and America in terms of his foreign policy and presiding over a potentially volcanic society- sitting in many ways in a position analogous to Musharref in Pakistan, seeking to keep the lid upon the powderkeg before it blows up his regime- though unlike Musharref Assad has exchanged popularity at home for unpopularity in Washington. The different attitudes in part reflect their different situations but are also interesting as two models of uncertain dictatorship strive to cope with the War on Terror with wildly different strategies.

Assad within the interview plays one aspect brilliantly- he argues that Hezbollah and Hamas and the Iraqi resistance can all be looked at as the democratic resistance of people coming together to resist occupying forces- this he says is 'normal', 'wherever you have occupation in the region...you have the same reaction in every occupation', terming the situation in Iraq a 'quagmire' and arguing that 'resistance' is a universal concept. Whilst his stance on Lebanon swiftly becomes ridiculous, his use of Western rhetoric more centrally back at the West is very successful.

Simpson might be seen by some to have given a very easy ride to Assad- he seldom interrupts and only on Lebanon asks a difficult question. Possibly being less than Paxman like was a condition of the interview. It also allows us to see the appeal that Assad holds across the Middle East: his use of the rhetoric of democratisation to further his ends is adroit. This man is a politician who can attempt to appeal to different audiences and whether we like him or not realising that ability is there is something we need to understand if we are ever to act successfully within a region where he is a leading figure.

Of course Assad has his own agenda on this being as he is a dictator and a strongman, albeit perhaps one who has reformist tendencies, it is in his interest to have the West as a pantomime villain to take the blame for his own failure to give his population accountability in their government. On the other hand his own rhetoric and the rhetoric of others about resistance means that one of the ways that Arabs have to respond to what has happened is not just the appeal to the lands of Islam and the concept of the infidel, but also an appeal to the idea of resistance and the idea of self determination. In that sense what Assad showed tonight was the face of Fatah, how far inside the Syrian leader that is married to the face of Osama is something that others will be better qualified to say. Putting the face of Fatah forwards in the West might be a deliberate strategy, it also might be a chink in his armour as the arguments used against the West by him can be turned back on him and his Allawite allies- one wonders if somewhere in this interview lies the nugget of a clip that could be replayed to the Syrian population about resistance and democracy.

The interview with Assad is about midway through last night's newsnight broadcast which will be here for the next 16 hours (until roughly 10.30 UK time).


edmudn said...

I think the evidence Assad is actually popular is very limited-and the way Syria is wrong suggests he agrees with me

edmund said...

that should be run rather than wrong

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree and I think he is fortifying his position through this but I think he may well be popular on the streets of other Arab capitols.