Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be feeling better about his grip on power and, now, he wants the West to feel better about it, too. To do that, Assad is engaged in a press offensive to rehab his current image as a genocidal tyrant accused of committing war crimes on his own people during the half-decade conflict that has killed nearly half a million Syrians and forced half the country, some 11 million people, to flee. When Assad met with a delegation of Western journalists in Syria recently, he was in full pivot mode, portraying himself as a moderate, misunderstood, potential-ally in a country that is home to an expansionist-minded terrorist organization in ISIS and riven by the humanitarian horrors of civil war.
“I’m just a headline—the bad president, the bad guy, who is killing the good guys,” Assad said. “You know this narrative. The real reason is toppling the government. This government doesn’t fit the criteria of the United States.”
The change in tone, and approach, may have its roots in a renewed sense of military and administrative control over portions of the country, but there’s no doubt the Syrian strongman senses the geopolitical ground has shifted on Syria, a shift emanating from the accelerating rise of the nationalist Right in European capitals and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the American election. In short, the West may be looking for an out as its own politics are roiled by ISIS attacks and a refugee crisis.
Emboldened, Assad’s attempted makeover is chilling in the breadth and scope of its unblinking revisionism. The New York Times’ Anne Barnard on the meeting:
[Assad] radiated confidence and friendliness as he ushered a group of British and American journalists and policy analysts into an elegant wood-paneled sitting room where he claimed that the social fabric of Syria was stitched together “much better than before” it had been before a chaotic civil war began more than five years ago… Waxing philosophical, he spoke of every Syrian’s right to be “a full citizen, in every meaning of this word,” and likened intolerant versions of religion to a computer operating system that needed to be updated. He promised that a new era of openness, transparency and dialogue was underway in Syria, and said that he was thinking ahead about how to modernize Syrians’ mentality after a war that he believed his forces were assured of winning.
But what of the litany of crimes Assad is accused of? “Let’s suppose that these allegations are correct and this president has killed his own people and the free world and the West are helping the Syrian people,” Assad said in English. “After five years and a half, who supported me? How can I be a president and my people don’t support me?… This is not realistic story.”
The gaslighting didn’t stop there. “The whole argument that the United States wants to fight ISIS is not correct,” Assad said. “This is an illusion and misinformation. In reality, everything the United States has been doing in Syria, at least since what they call the international alliance against ISIS, is to expand ISIS.”