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Rime Allaf recaps 20 years of Bashar’s rule


I wrote this thread of 30 tweets on the occasion of Bashar Assad’s ascent to the Syrian throne 20 years ago. Thank you for reading. (For retweets, Twitter link Rime Allaf @rallaf)

20 years ago today, I was at a Damascus hair salon when an assistant rushed to tell us Hafez Assad had died. What I saw and lived in the next days and years is set in stone in my memory. This thread is but a glimpse of life in #Syria then and the slow descent into implosion. /1

Hafez started preparing the ground for 2nd son Bashar in 1994 when original heir Bassel was killed in a car crash. While Bashar’s meteoric rise in army ranks and early public appearances in late 90s prepared people, Hafez was busy clearing regime ranks of potential contenders. /2

Big names Syrians had grown up fearing, from Hekmat Shehabi to dreaded head of intelligence Ali Douba, were officially retired to ensure only the most loyal and least ambitious men stayed. Bashar never had to fight an “old guard” in later years as some clueless media claimed. /3

Within an hour of Hafez’s death, parliament held a special televised session to amend the constitution. In 5 minutes, the required age for the presidency was lowered from 40 to 34, Bashar’s age. We all watched in stunned silence: we expected it, but it was still humiliating. /4

When Bassel died, Hafez Assad forced the entire country to shut down & mourn for 40 days. So when Hafez died, Syrians went into self-preservation mode: within a couple of hours, streets emptied & shops closed, with people at home glued to TVs, trying to interpret developments. /5

Turns out Bashar couldn’t care less if people grieved “the eternal leader” as long as they cheered “the hope” – the cute moniker his folks spread for us to repeat. Bashar was devoid of emotion, even flippant at the funeral, a bit ungrateful considering his hefty inheritance. /6

The formalities of Bashar’s “election” took place the following month, and many would have wanted the story to end with “and we all lived happily ever after” … but we didn’t. To begin with, the personality cult imposed under Hafez paled in comparison to what Bashar demanded. /7

Hafez liked being feared but Bashar was desperate to be admired. Over the years, he sidelined any Syrian personality who came even close to being popular or, God forbid, to outshine the king. Old wooden Baathist dinosaurs are still his core ministers & advisors for a reason. /8

To be admired, Bashar strived to be cool. The rumors about work ethics, love of technology and humble demeanor, the wife, the living quarters, the interviews, the cafes, the modernity, the posters magically appearing “against his will” – all meant to drip with coolness. /9

Before Hafez died, I was one of the first few thousand Syrians to buy a mobile phone. For that privilege, in addition to the cost of the phone (illegal to bring one from abroad) + various fees, I paid $1,200 to Syriatel just to have a number. That’s how Rami became cool too. /10

As portfolio manager of the Assad and Makhlouf clans, Rami was the most visible and most powerful “businessman.” But all the children of the Hafez buddies became the new business people of the Bashar era – not that it’s a feat of entrepreneurship with no competition allowed. /11

The so-called economic opening was merely an erratic crony capitalist economy so a few could live it up. As they watched mounting obscene wealth around them, Syrians were beginning to face rising prices, diminishing means, a dismal housing situation and a transport nightmare. /12

From the start, Bashar claimed the economy would be reformed; if this was reform, imagine the rest. There were a couple of private banks, some media, a few private schools – none of which had an effect on the lives of ordinary Syrians. On the political front, empty words. /13

Some dared to call Bashar’s bluff. In September 2000, 99 brave Syrian intellectuals signed a statement asking him to lift the state of emergency (in place since 1963), free political prisoners, allow freedom of speech … if you know Syria, you know where this is going. /14

Syrians waited for these basic freedoms and rights for an entire decade, and paid dearly for it. While Rami scooped up every possible penny made in or coming into Syria, Bashar was scooping up Syrians who dared to speak out and populating jails with prisoners of conscience. /15

The Damascus Spring, as we call it, turned rapidly into a Damascus Winter. Many old opposition figures who the world discovered in 2011 had been prisoners of conscience for years – under father and then son – for “weakening national sentiment.” Defying Bashar was verboten. /16

Abroad, Bashar played statesman with disastrous effect, giving absurd interviews pontificating on world affairs. A mansplainer of the first order, he tediously denied claims about any action by saying “it’s not logical.” He riled up the US by sending fighters to Iraq … /17

… even though he voted for Resolution 1441 on his Security Council stint, giving the US the unanimity it had sought and the justification it needed to invade Iraq a few months later (Bashar always wants to be wanted, and if that doesn’t work he makes trouble to be noticed). /18

And then there was Lebanon, which he had been messing up since the day he inherited his realm. In 2004, he forced the Lebanese parliament to extend then-president Emile Lahoud for 3 years (unconstitutionally), and in February 2005, with his ever stronger ally Hezbollah, … /19

… he killed Rafic Hariri, setting in motion a sequence of further assassinations and upheaval, and the forced retreat of Syrian soldiers who had been there since the 1970s. When brave Syrians dared to stand with their Lebanese counterparts, he threw them in jail, again. /20

Syrians watched Lebanese protesters publicly insult Bashar, shaking the regime for the first time. That is when the “menhebak” (we love you) posters started appearing, and when the regime began peddling Syrianism (basically, Syria First) to replace Baathist Arabism. /21

After the hasty Lebanon retreat, Bashar promised Syrians big changes were coming. We were not holding our breath, but when he then convened a Baath Party Congress (the first since 2000), some again dared to hope the regime had finally learned its lesson. Silly them. /22

The Congress declared that the economy (officially socialist for people, capitalist for ruling elite) would henceforth be known as a “social market economy,” whatever that means. Poverty continued to rise, the velvet society continued to sip frappuccinos at the Four Seasons. /23

Ostracized by the entire region and the world, Bashar was saved by Hezbollah’s infamous May 2008 assault on Beirut which led to a reconciliation agreement sponsored by Qatar, leading itself to his reintegration into the international community and an invitation to Paris. /24

The bigger Bashar’s head got on a regional level, the more his actions increased Syrian despair and disparity. And when he declared in early 2011 to WSJ that Syria was immune to the Arab spring, the children of Deraa pointed to the naked emperor and wrote: it’s your turn. /25

Syrians endured suffocating hardship over decades of Assad tyranny before they started the revolution – a revolution in every sense of the word. To understand this seemingly sudden unleashing of the free Syrian spirit, you need to know about the decade that preceded it. /26

This thread merely scratches the surface of the trajectory of Bashar Assad and Syria, which I researched for years at Chatham House, and wrote and spoke about in hundreds of articles, talks and interviews. Expertise on Syrian affairs is needed, above all from Syrians. /27

Hafez Assad bequeathed him a hereditary republic; Bashar took this massive trust fund and destroyed it over the course of 20 years, little by little at first through reckless abandon, and then with every weapon of mass terror and destruction. /28

This gluttonous, incompetent, barbaric regime is unreformable, proving repeatedly it will use all means at its disposal to maintain its violent power, 50 years on and counting. Since March 2011, most Syrians have sacrificed everything to liberate themselves, with little help. /29

As the world rethinks its selective commitment to fighting injustice and upholding human rights, after the exposure of horrific crimes on unarmed civilians, it should help Syrians get justice too. For that to happen, Bashar Assad’s 20th anniversary in power must be his last. /30


Syrian Bomb Plot Marked Deadly Turn in Civil War

New Revelations Suggest Killing of Bashar al-Assad’s Brother-in-Law Was Inside Job

A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Homs, where the early confrontations between protesters and regime authorities progressed into civil war.ENLARGE
A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the city of Homs, where the early confrontations between protesters and regime authorities progressed into civil war. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

AL-QARDAHA, Syria—On the fourth day of a rebel assault on President Bashar al-Assad ’s seat of power in Damascus, an explosion tore through offices of the National Security Bureau, killing the president’s brother-in-law and three other senior officials.

Rebel groups claimed credit for the audacious plot, and Syrian opposition groups declared it was the beginning of the end for the regime. In Washington, the Obama administration ordered a task force from the Pentagon, State and Treasury to draw up plans for a post-Assad Syria, said Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time.

The July 2012 bombing indeed marked a turning point in Syria’s conflict. But rather than the downfall of Mr. Assad, it ushered in a new, more deadly phase of Syria’s civil war that allowed him to cling to power. Any regime voices still open to accommodating the opposition went silent, and, within a year, pro-Assad forces deployed chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

Now, new revelations point to a startling theory about the bombing that killed Assef Shawkat, an army general who was Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law and the deputy defense minister: It was an inside job.

Two dozen people, including past and current regime officials, opposition leaders, activists and rebels, and politicians in neighboring countries with ties to Mr. Assad told The Wall Street Journal the bombing grew out of a split between the Assad family and its hard-line allies on one side, and officials seeking negotiations with opposition groups on the other.

Acceptance of the theory by such a broad cross-section of Syrians highlights the ruthless reputation Mr. Assad has cemented since the conflict began more than three years ago. It also shows the dynamic of the president’s inner circle as it struggled to keep a grip on power.

Mr. Assad’s media office rejected requests for an interview with the president. Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk and Maj. Gen. Deeb Zeitoun, two of the regime’s top security officials, declined separate requests for comment.

Former Syrian army general Manaf Tlass believes the regime was connected with the bombing. Mr. Tlass defected two weeks before Mr. Shawkat was killed—after guards found six explosive devices planted outside Mr. Tlass’s office on a military base in Damascus. He accused the regime of wanting to kill him, too.

Mr. Tlass said he and Mr. Shawkat were among those calling for talks with both peaceful and armed regime opponents, a position contrary to Mr. Assad and his intelligence and security agency chiefs, who sought to crush the insurgency.

“Bashar never opted at any time for serious and credible reforms, but instead chose to destroy the country rather than lose power,” said Mr. Tlass, who is living in Paris. “He sold Syria to the Iranians.”

The attack opened the door for Iran, Mr. Assad’s principal regional ally, and Hezbollah, its proxy militia in Lebanon, to play a greater role in defending the regime, according to members of Syria’s security forces and pro-regime militias. Within weeks, foreign Shiite militiamen flocked to Syria. The fighters joined homegrown militias trained by Iran and Hezbollah to help prop up the overstretched Syrian army.

These fighters took the lead in the regime’s recapture of rebel territory, helping push the death toll from less than 20,000 at the time to more than 190,000 as of August, according to the United Nations. Millions more Syrians have fled their homes amid the destruction.

Iran’s embassy in Damascus and a spokesman for Hezbollah in Beirut refused interviews or comment.

Mr. Ford, who now works with the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, said top members of the Syrian opposition told him rebels weren’t responsible for the bombing but believed the regime was. “I’ve never seen convincing evidence that it was an inside job,” he said, “but the allegations were widespread.”

A leading Syrian opposition activist, who had direct ties with rebel groups and was in Damascus the day of the bombing, said it would have been impossible for rebels at the time to carry out such an attack.

“If you asked me then, I would have lied to you and told you, ‘Our heroic rebels did it.’ But now I can tell you, ‘No, we were amateurs back then,’ ” said the activist, now based in Turkey. The bombing boosted opposition morale after government reports credited the rebels, he said. It also spurred more Alawites, members of Mr. Assad’s Shiite-linked minority sect who opposed the Sunni-led revolt, to rally around the regime.

Growing involvement by Shiite-dominated Iran and Hezbollah boosted support from Sunni Arab states and private donors to more militant rebel groups, including Islamic State, said Western officials and analysts.

Today, many Syrians—and the U.S. and its allies—face a choice between the Assad regime or the militants of Islamic State, which has turned large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq into a magnet for foreign jihadists.

Long before Syria’s conflict began in the spring of 2011, Mr. Tlass and Mr. Assad—military academy classmates—were seen as a new breed of Syrian leaders: young, modern and open to reforms.

“Bashar started making reformist steps between 1998 and 2000, even before becoming president,” Mr. Tlass said. “I was close to him. People were hopeful and thought he was capable of changing things.”

Even the U.S. thought it could do business with Mr. Assad, reappointing an ambassador in Damascus in 2009.

Assef Shawkat, an army general and the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was killed in a July 2012 explosion in offices of the National Security Bureau in Damascus.
Assef Shawkat, an army general and the brother-in-law of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was killed in a July 2012 explosion in offices of the National Security Bureau in Damascus. REUTERS

The killing of two Syrian protesters by regime forces on March 18, 2011, in the city of Deraa, changed everything. It shattered a short period of peaceful marches by mostly Sunni crowds calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster.

Two days later, Mr. Tlass said, he got a call from Mr. Assad asking for advice. Mr. Tlass said he suggested Mr. Assad remove the governor of Deraa, release anyone detained in the demonstrations, arrest the local security chief and make amends for the killings with a visit to the city.

“I told him our society is tribal and will value your conciliatory gesture,” Mr. Tlass recalled. “He told me, ‘OK.’ ”

But as more protesters poured into the streets, more were killed. “It’s no secret that Syria is facing today a grand conspiracy whose threads extend from inside the homeland to far and near countries,” Mr. Assad said in a speech to parliament on March 30, 2011.

At the time, Mr. Tlass commanded a 3,500-strong unit within the Republican Guard that was charged with protecting the president and the capital. Mr. Tlass said about 300 of his men were sent to the city of Douma to help with crowd control as thousands of people took to the streets.

He said they were pushed aside by forces reporting to intelligence chief Hafez Makhlouf —a maternal cousin of Mr. Assad—who shot and killed about a dozen protesters in April 2011. Mr. Makhlouf couldn’t be reached for comment.

Mr. Tlass said some of his men were executed for refusing to shoot protesters. One of his best officers, he said, returned from Douma and pleaded to be relieved of the assignment.

“I told him, ‘Be patient, the president promised that things will be fixed within three weeks,’ ” Mr. Tlass said. “The next day, he committed suicide.”

Syria’s security and intelligence agencies believed they could rely on repressive measures that had worked for decades, according to former regime officials and Western diplomats.

Haytham Manaa, a Syrian opposition leader who has spent much of his life in exile in France, said the regime was surprised when people overcame fears and continued the street protests, which were inspired in part by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Mr. Tlass said he retained his official position but was sidelined by the regime after he raised objections to shooting demonstrators and called for talks with community leaders involved in the protests. That view, he said, put him at odds with hard-liners close to Mr. Assad.

In May 2011, Mr. Tlass said, he had a last meeting with the president. “I told him, ‘I am your friend and I advised you not to choose the military solution,’ ” Mr. Tlass recalled. “ ‘Go for the political one, it’s more inclusive.’ He answered, ‘You are too soft.’ ”

Mr. Assad’s vice president at the time, Farouq al-Sharaa, one of the country’s most seasoned politicians, fell next. He was pushing for dialogue with opposition groups, his relatives said, and was put under house arrest shortly after he chaired a national dialogue conference in Damascus in early July.

Walid Jumblatt, a senior Lebanese political leader, said he last met with Mr. Assad in June 2011: “He told me at the end, ‘I don’t want people to love me, I want people to fear me.’ ”

Regime loyalists, meanwhile, took up the slogan: “Assad or nobody. Assad or we burn the country.”

In June 2011, some activists tried to keep their opposition movement peaceful amid the growing sectarian violence between the mostly Sunni rebels and regime forces, largely Alawite.

Mohammad-Mounir al-Faqir and fellow activists bought 5,000 ping pong balls that they covered with such slogans as, “Assad, we want freedom whether you like it or not,” Mr. Faqir said. They released the balls from a spot uphill from Mr. Assad’s residence and filmed guards scurrying to collect them.

By fall, rebels in Homs took control of neighborhoods by force. For the regime, the rebel advances threatened important roads connecting Damascus with Syria’s only seaports.

The casket bearing the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the modern Syrian regime and the father of the current president, inside a mausoleum in al-Qardaha, Syria.
The casket bearing the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the founder of the modern Syrian regime and the father of the current president, inside a mausoleum in al-Qardaha, Syria. SAM DAGHER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In December 2011, Mr. Shawkat, the brother-in-law later slain in the bombing, and two security chiefs visited Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, to meet with opposition activists, businessmen and religious and community leaders.

Mr. Shawkat and the others offered a cease-fire plan that would have committed the regime to end opposition arrests and the shelling of neighborhoods in return for a pledge by rebels to halt attacks on regime checkpoints, said people who were there.

One opposition activist said Mr. Shawkat seemed to be the regime representative most interested in the discussion. One of the businessmen there agreed.

“I told them, ‘You are turning people into your enemies, what’s your interest in that?’ ” the businessman said. “I was interrupted by an angry official but Assef [Shawkat] snapped at him and told him, ‘Calm down. Let him finish.’ ”

No deal was reached. Conciliatory gestures approved by Mr. Shawkat, such as allowing ambulances to pick up the dead and wounded, were blocked by regime hard-liners, according to activists and community leaders.

Mr. Tlass, the defected general, said Mr. Shawkat’s power diminished shortly after his return from Homs, as security and intelligence chiefs asserted greater control. “He insisted on retaining his functions and powers,” Mr. Tlass said, “and here the real clash began.”

Mr. Tlass and several people with knowledge of the matter said Mr. Shawkat posed a threat to Mr. Assad’s rule. Mr. Shawkat, who was married to Mr. Assad’s sister, had previously headed Military Intelligence—one of Syria’s most feared institutions—and commanded a loyal group of officers.

Mr. Shawkat moved within the circles of power that surround Mr. Assad. The first circles include Mr. Assad’s wife and mother, his army commander brother, Maher, and maternal cousins, the Makhloufs, Mr. Tlass said. The next circle includes the chiefs of security and intelligence services.

“In my opinion, they got rid of him. They were scared of him,” Mr. Jumblatt, the Lebanese politician, said of Mr. Shawkat. Others, including Mr. Tlass and people who know members of the Assad family, said Mr. Shawkat was seen as a potential threat to Mr. Assad.

Two months before the July 18, 2012, bombing, Mr. Tlass said, there was an unsuccessful plot to kill Mr. Shawkat with a poisoned takeout lunch of kebabs and hummus in Damascus.

The bombing marked a shift by Hezbollah and Iran—when saving the Assad regime became their top priority, according to Iraqi and Lebanese officials close to both sides.

On the day Mr. Shawkat was killed, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force, was in Damascus, Mr. Tlass said. The Qods Force is a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards responsible for operations abroad, particularly in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

Also that day, Hassan Nasrallah, commander of Iran’s main regional proxy force Hezbollah, spoke to supporters in a Beirut suburb to mark the anniversary of the 2006 war with Israel.

Mr. Nasrallah said Mr. Assad and his regime were indispensable for the survival of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed movements, including Hamas. Mr. Nasrallah said rockets fired at Israel in the war were Syrian.

A Syrian militia leader said in an interview last year that Syria’s intelligence services worked with Hezbollah and Iran’s Qods Force to raise fears that Sunni militants planned to attack holy Shiite shrines in Syria—an effort to attract more Shiites across the region to fight alongside Assad regime forces.

With the help of foreign fighters, the regime “succeeded in giving the impression of a strong and cohesive army,” said Ezzat al-Shabandar, an Iraqi Shiite politician with close ties to Iranian and Syrian regime officials.

The regime also began using social media to shift popular views toward the idea that opposition groups and rebels had joined savage Islamic extremists. Mr. Assad in speeches and interviews embraced the idea that he was an indispensable leader who must use violence to rescue Syria, a message that has echoed down the chain of command.

“I always tell Sunnis, ‘Your only protector is Bashar al-Assad because he’s restraining us and not letting us do more,’ ” said Col. Jamal Younes, an Alawite army officer.

Militancy on the opposition side also rose dramatically. By the spring of 2013, such extremist groups as Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front were displacing both secular and homegrown Islamist rebel groups in Syria.

Islamic militants in March seized the predominantly Armenian-Christian resort town of Kasab, located in the mountains of Mr. Assad’s home province near the border with Turkey in western Syria.

Regime forces drove them out three months later, leaving homes and churches ransacked.

“We are victims of both sides and this is why I want to leave,” said Armen Georgekian, an Armenian Christian and the town’s only shopkeeper. He recalled visits by Mr. Assad before the conflict and said he and his group bought ice cream cones from his shop.

“He can survive,” Mr. Georgekian said, “but he can’t win.”

Down the coast is Mr. Assad’s hometown of al-Qardaha, which has been largely untouched by the war. A domed mausoleum stands on a hill where a dozen workers in late summer trimmed hedges and pulled weeds in its garden.

Inside, two guards in suits stood motionless next to a casket, covered in a green velvet cloth, that holds the remains of Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president’s father and the founder of the Assad regime.

Around the casket in the black-marble hall are the tombs of two of Bashar al-Assad’s brothers, Majd and Bassel, who had been groomed by his father to take over power. Bassel al-Assad ’s death in a 1994 car accident opened the way for his younger brother, Bashar.

In Qardaha’s central market, shops were fully stocked and farmers from nearby villages hawked fruits, vegetables and freshly picked tobacco leaves.

A statue of Hafez al-Assad, surrounded by four lions symbolizing his four sons, stands in the main square.

Posters of Bashar al-Assad were plastered on shop windows. One showed him next to his father, who had a halo above his head. “Rest in peace in the heavens above, our master,” the caption said. “You should be proud of Bashar.”

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Bashar’s War

For the Syrian regime’s faithful mouthpieces, victory is always around the corner.


In the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadl, according to the Syrian regime media, all is well.

This is the sort of victory that defines the worldview of the Syrian regime media. Television, radio, and print outlets controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad articulate a single vision of the war: that the Syrian Arab Army is waging an unrelenting campaign against terrorists led by Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al Qaeda, who are the vanguard of a “universal” conspiracy against the Syrian people. But Syria will prevail, state media contend, and its people will build a new, better country founded on dialogue and openness — an oasis of religious and ethnic tolerance.

This is the war Assad chooses to show, and more importantly, it is the war as the regime’s supporters understand it. This narrative has been broadcast to the Syrian public for over two years now by the core of Syrian regime media: SANA; the newspapers al-Baath, Tishreen, and al-Thawra; the official Radio Damascus; the state’s satellite television network and its sister news network, al-Ikhbariya; and the technically privately owned but staunchly loyalist al-Watan daily and Addounia satellite TV network. And in this narrative, the Syrian regime is winning.

The regime advances its understanding of the war most effectively through its daily battlefield reporting. These reports are nearly identical across all media, and they employ a set, limited vocabulary. The regime’s Syrian Arab Army is “our brave army” or “our brave armed forces.” The enemy consists of “terrorists” and “mercenaries,” and the Syrian military typically “destroys” their “nests,” “eliminates” them, and “leaves [them] dead and wounded.” Often, state media give names for the militants killed in combat, and in keeping with the media’s emphasis on foreign fighters among the rebels, their nationality is provided if they are not Syrian.

The regime’s narrative robs the anti-Assad forces of any agency. The Syrian military is always “pursuing” or “targeting” terrorists, but it is never ambushed or attacked. The armed forces sometimes “clash with” or “repel” terrorists, but there are never regime casualties. The regime’s enemies only have initiative when they murder and rob civilians due to those civilians’ “rejection of the terrorists’ crimes and refusal to harbor them.” Terrorists’ actions are “desperate” or “attempts to raise [their] morale” after significant losses.

The pro-regime media acknowledge no divisions among the opposition, painting the many factions as an undifferentiated bloc of militant fanatics. When coverage is more specific than simply “terrorists,” militants are most often identified as belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, though “the terrorist gangs belonging to the so-called ‘Free Army'” make occasional appearances. When Jabhat al-Nusra publicly pledged loyalty to al Qaeda on April 10, regime coverage was not nonplussed: The announcement was “nothing new,” reported regime television; it was only something “the external opposition and their supporters had insisted on denying for appearances’ sake” while secretly arming the group.

The regime’s media outlets also supply a rationale for why these foreign terrorists have come to Syria. The West and its tame Arab allies, they say, have targeted Syria because it has championed the resistance against colonialist and Zionist plots to dominate the Middle East. In Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi’s words, the terrorists’ goal is to “break apart the countries of the Arab world, loot their resources, and destroy their social fabric.”

Who are the chief conspirators in this plot? State newspaper al-Thawra identifies them as “Zio-American circles and oil and gas sheikhdoms in the Gulf” — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the NATO countries. The United States and Israel ultimately steer events, the media report, and U.S. President Barack Obama is “the maestro of the war.”

The United States may publicly disavow terrorists like Jabhat al-Nusra, but according to al-Ikhbariya, Washington quietly pushes its minions in the region to fund and arm them. After all, America and its allies “created these terrorist organizations so that, like a mount, they might ride them into the region, divide its land, and tear apart its people.”

The rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are regularly described as “a’arab” — uncultured Bedouins, it is implied — of whom Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani comes in for the most vitriolic criticism. Syrian television regularly cuts to stock footage of the Qatari ruler when it refers to those who conspire against the Arab people. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the media report, “are blessed with peace and tranquility because they send death abroad and export terrorists.”

The international media aren’t spared the regime’s criticism. Foreign media engender a sort of free-floating hostility; the state media accuse them of “beat[ing] the drums of terrorism in Syria.” But Al Jazeera, which is financed by Qatar, is singled out for having “long played a role in spilling the blood of Arab peoples.”

Regime media also attack the Turkish government for openly supporting terrorists in Syria, implying that Ankara is motivated by imperial ambitions. The Turkish government is referred to as “neo-Ottomans,” while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly “dreams of restoring the sultanate of the ‘sick man [of Europe].'” The Turks are also accused on occasion of selling Syrian refugees’ organs before burning their dismembered bodies.

The Syrian regime, which has long presented itself as “the beating heart of Arabism,” reacted to the Arab League’s recent decision to hand over its seat to the external opposition with contempt. The Baath daily called the Arab League’s March summit “the Summit of Shame.” The event, Minister of Information Omran al-Zoubi explained, was “convened in Qatar under the control [of Qatar] and its money, which allowed it to hijack the league and do as it pleased.”

The political opposition is covered as an afterthought in the regime media — as a front for the terrorist core of the insurgency. The aforementioned Baath report calls opposition leaders the “kumbars of global terror.” “Kumbars” means “film extras”; it doesn’t quite map onto English idiom, but the point should be clear.

Of course, this array of enemies doesn’t necessarily mean that the Syrian regime portrays itself as confronting “global terror” alone. State media are quick to emphasize anything that runs counter to a narrative of Syria’s international isolation. This ranges from any official support — including statements from Russian and Iranian officials — to popular support, like a “mass” solidarity march in São Paulo or reports that “dozens of Yemeni youths” are ready to head to Syria to support the military. Foreign experts and media reports are also given prominent placement when they reinforce the regime narrative. Some foreign journalism is faithfully reported, but sometimes the source material is made more palatable for the regime narrative. An article on a King’s College London report on Europeans joining the rebels, for example, referred to the Europeans as “mercenaries” — a charge absent in the original study.

The Syrian state also leans on support from religious leaders as a key source of legitimacy. It promotes calls by Pope Francis for a political solution to the crisis, for example, and highlights a mixed assemblage of Aleppo priests and imams who participated in the lead-up to the country’s national dialogue. While foreign media often emphasize the conflict’s sectarian dimension, the Syrian official media consistently stress what they portray as Syria’s relative religious harmony. Damascus is, in the words of Syria’s satellite station, “the Damascus of Arabism, the city of love, tolerance, and coexistence.” This ecumenical language reinforces the regular portrayal of the terrorist rebels as takfiri — extremists willing to murder the insufficiently pious.

In contrast to the rebels’ alleged nihilism, regime media consistently advance what they describe as “the only way out of this crisis” — a political solution. Syrian media report daily on meetings held by the “ministerial committee tasked with the implementation of the political program to solve the Syrian crisis” — meetings to which the external opposition is invited, it is emphasized. The process is meant to strengthen respect for a plurality of opinion and ultimately build a “strong, new, united Syria.”

But this regime-run process of dialogue seems, in practice, to amount to little more than a monologue. While the government and its interlocutors do reportedly engage on concrete issues — including security, housing, and municipal services — participants interviewed stress their total commitment to both Assad’s political program and the ongoing military campaign to purge the country of terrorists. This is a discussion in which participants may differ on the details, but the broad themes are fixed. As al-Ikhbariya puts it, its goal “is to bring everyone together for dialogue under the roof of the nation, with an emphasis on the need to combat alien takfiri thought and to root out the forces of terrorism.”

The challenges of the moment aren’t necessarily papered over. Regime media acknowledge the economic hardships facing average Syrians but frame such difficulties in terms of their determination to persevere. “The terror of militant groups in Syria hasn’t been able to prevent the student, the employee, the laborer, and the simple shopkeeper from going about their lives and performing their duty for their nation,” SANA reports.

Prime Minister Halqi, meanwhile, reassures the public: “The Syrian Arab Army is at its strongest and its best, and the Syrian people are behind the state. They believe in it, and their morale is high. If the feeling of concern is legitimate and natural, fear is not.”

Such sentiments are intended to communicate confidence, but the Syrian regime’s messaging is, at best, primitive. In a conflict where new media — both pro- and anti-regime — have helped shape events on the ground, the traditional Syrian state media feel robotic and derivative. The print media coverage consists largely of rewritten SANA news releases, while Radio Damascus’s call-in shows — and their suspiciously articulate participants — sound like playacting. The one bright spot is Syria’s official television: If you can detach from the content of the coverage, the reports are frequently so acid and sarcastic that they’re hilarious. ((For subtitled translations of Syrian television reports, see here and here.)

Average Syrians’ views, however, seem to get lost in the mix. State media produces man-on-the-street quotes and interviews, but only with proud citizens who express unflinching support for the regime. In a report about a school for martyrs’ children, for example, a war widow says, “I still have a girl and a boy, and I, all of us, would love to give our blood and our lives in the defense of our mother, Syria.” Now, this sentiment is real. A broad segment of Syrian opinion is committed to the regime’s vision for the country — or terrified enough by the opposition to side with the familiar. But when you see this in the Syrian media, are they showing that genuine commitment to Assad’s Syria — or a sort of facsimile thereof?

Still, you can be forgiven for occasionally thinking that the regime media’s accounts offer a glimpse of something real — something that taps into the suffering of Syrians, for and against the regime, who are seeing their lives fall away from them. Reporting from Damascus’s Sabaa Bahrat Square after an April 9 car bomb, Addounia narrates that the area “once more polishes its veneer and restores a luster that says, ‘Syria is for us.'”

As it shows people sweeping dust and debris from their storefronts, the television network assures its viewers: “Not one speck of Syria will ever fall under the control of monstrous takfiri terror or be at the command of bastards coming from the depths of ignorance and its garbage dumps, supported by the sellers of gas and slaves, traders in white flesh, and owners of red rooms.”

And then the report cuts to locals estimating the cost of rebuilding their livelihoods — figures in the hundreds of thousands or millions of Syrian lira, a lifetime’s savings. And the Syrians just look tired.


Analysing Assad’s Al-Ikhbareya TV interview


No one can deny that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is stuck in a quagmire, militarily speaking. But when it comes to the media he is free to manoeuvre.

Earlier on in the civil conflict which is devastating Syria, he voiced the theory, ‘We dominate the ground while they control the sky’ with reference to pro-opposition Arab satellite channels. Now he has changed his tactics.

When Assad speaks to a foreign newspaper, it makes headlines across the world. Newspapers and broadcasts splash his words while intelligence experts analyse them.

Syria’s president chose Al-Ikhbareya news channel to make a statement marking Independence Day.

The interview was clearly well prepared. We can’t rule out the possibility that Assad’s presidential office prepared the questions themselves, while the interviewer’s role was limited to reading them off to avoid potential repercussions or violations.

The president wanted to address as many authorities as possible in his answers. I will clarify exactly what here.  READ ON HERE

Israel’s favorite Arab dictator of all is Assad

Both Assad senior and Assad junior advocated resistance against Israel. This slogan was hollow, serving the regime merely as an insurance policy against any demand for freedom and democracy.

By Salman Masalha Mar.29, 2011 | 2:30 AM | 26

assad - AP - November 10 2010

Syrian President Bashar Assad, November 10, 2010. Photo by AP

As strange as it sounds, everyone in Israel loves Arab dictators. When I say everyone I mean both Jews and Arabs. The favorite dictator of all is president Assad. As Assad junior inherited the oppressive regime in Syria, so did both Jews and Arabs transfer their affection for the dictator from Damascus from Assad senior to his son.

Following the intifada in the Arab states, Bashar al-Assad maintained in an interview to the Wall Street Journal that the situation in Syria is different, adding that Syria is not like Egypt. He also emphasized that Syria was not susceptible to sliding into a similar situation, because it was in the “resistance” front and belongs to the anti-American, anti-Israeli axis.

Well, Assad is right. The situation in Syria is indeed different. The Syrian regime is more like Saddam’s defunct regime. The Ba’ath Party that ruled Iraq and the one still ruling Syria both held aloft flags of pan-Arab national ideology. But slogans are one thing and reality is another. All the ideological sweet talk was only talk. For the Ba’ath Party, both in Iraq and in Syria, constituted a political platform to perpetuate tribal, ethnic oppression.

Indeed, the situation in Egypt is completely different. If we put aside the Coptic minority, then Egyptian society is homogenous religiously and not tribal at all. The demoted Egyptian president, Mubarak, never had a tribal-ethnic crutch to lean on. The Egyptian army is also different and not at all like the Syrian or Iraqi armies.

For example, when the United States invaded Iraq, the Iraqi army splintered into its tribal and ethnic fragments. The soldiers took off their uniforms and each joined his tribe and ethnic community. Saddam too adhered to those tribal codes. He did not flee Iraq but went to hide in the well-protected areas of his tribesmen. This is what happens in these societies. In the land of the cedars, as soon as the civil war broke out, the Lebanese army dissolved into its ethnic components and disappeared.

True, Syria is not Egypt. Syria is also different in terms of the price in blood inflicted by the tyrannical Syrian regime. The Syrian tribal government is based on the force exercised by the security branches ruled by the tribesmen and their interested allies.

Inherently, a tribal regime of this kind will always be seen as a foreign reign. This kind of reign can be called tribal imperialism, which rules by operating brutal terror and oppression. This is underscored when a minority tribe rules, like in Syria. Thus every undermining of the government is seen as a challenge to the tribal hegemony and a danger to the ruling tribe’s survival. Such a regime by its very nature is totally immersed in a bloodbath.

Both Assad senior and Assad junior advocated resistance against Israel. This slogan was hollow, serving the regime merely as an insurance policy against any demand for freedom and democracy. The Syrian “resistance” government has not uttered a peep on the Golan front since 1973. Instead, the “resistance” regime was and still is ready to fight Israel to the last Lebanese, and if that doesn’t do the trick – then to the last Palestinian.

As voices in Israel have recently spoken out in favor of Hamas’ continued rule in Gaza, so many Israelis are worried these days over the Syrian regime’s welfare. Astonishingly, not only Jews are praying secretly for the Damascus regime’s survival, but many in the Arab parties as well. These parties’ leaders have been dumbstruck, their voices have been muted and no outcry has been raised against the Syrian regime’s massacre of civilians.

All the hypocrites, Jews and Arabs alike, have united. It seems Assad has wall-to-wall support here, as though he were king of Israel.

Brahimi rues ‘lost opportunity’ to end Syria crisis

Lakhdar Brahimi told Lyse that change in Syria ‘has to be real’

When President Bashar al-Assad spoke defiantly on Sunday about a Syrian political solution without “foreign interference”, many asked what was left of international mediation led by the UN and Arab League’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

“I don’t know about my job,” Mr Brahimi told me in Cairo. “But I don’t know what it has done to his job.”

full article here

Assad offers only more of the same – mukhabarat brutality

Jan 7, 2013

The world still blinks every time that Bashar Al Assad speaks, as if it has not learnt anything from 21 months of violence.

In his speech yesterday – his ninth since the uprising began – the dictator offered a plan that would include a lengthy, complicated process of gradual change and “truth and reconciliation”. That would, in theory, lead to a new coalition government and a new constitution.

The speech was preceded by an aggressive two-week diplomatic campaign by the regime’s allies and the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. That renewed push for diplomacy followed 140 countries’ recognition of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, Nato Patriot missiles and military personnel that were dispatched to Turkey’s border, and pledges of increased support for the opposition.

The diplomatic overture by the regime is part of a Russian-backed plan that would keep Al Assad in power until presidential elections in the summer of 2014. And the diplomacy appears to have succeeded in slowing down aid to the rebels, with reports that arms supplies are drying up. But the speech yesterday should remind the world that this dictator has no place in a future Syria and that support for the rebels is the only way forward.

Russia probably pressured on Al Assad to announce a plan of reconciliation. But the speech sounded more vindictive, dismissive and exclusivist than even his previous bombast. For example, he said the plan was directed at only segments of the opposition, and that “those who reject the offer, I say to them: why would you reject an offer that was not meant for you in the first place?” In other points, he emphasised vengeance rather than reconciliation. He also blamed the rebels for the destruction of infrastructure and for cutting off electricity and communications.

“Syria accepts advice but never accepts orders,” he said. “All of what you heard in the past in terms of plans and initiatives were soap bubbles, just like the [Arab] Spring.”

It was clear that he tried to sound steadfast, but his voice betrayed him several times. And before his departure from the room, the crowds chanted “may God protect you” – a chant that is used when someone is threatened. The usual party line is “with our soul and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you”.

Why would the regime offer a plan now, when it has not made a single meaningful concession since the beginning of the uprising? The violence would never have reached such staggering levels had Al Assad offered reasonable reforms from the beginning. Any hope that he can engineer an end to the violence is an illusion, which will only prolong and worsen the crisis. If anything, the speech showed that the regime will not change its policies except under duress.

The aim seemed to be threefold: to create the impression that the rebels refuse political settlements; to add to the world’s reluctance about arming the rebels; and to question the legitimacy of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

The proposal of a new constitution is merely a red herring. Syrians did not rise up against the constitution, nor have they demanded constitutional change. People rose up against brutality, and the fact that the existing constitution was never honoured – the mukhabarat apparatus has dominated almost every aspect of Syrian life. The immediate cause of the uprising in Deraa was the mukhabarat, who arrested and tortured school boys for writing anti-regime graffiti and then humiliated their families.

Nor did Syrians rise up to be included in a coalition government. Any government that includes these same criminals will be no different.

“How to defend Bashar Assad in 10 easy steps

Borzou Daragahi, lundi 31 décembre 2012, 17:34 ·

This is my guide for Syria analysts and journalists who want to defend Bashar Assad while continuing to retain their credibility in the West.

1. Keep mentioning Jubhat al Nasra and other Islamic jihadi groups without mentioning that the vast majority of armed groups are not nearly as extreme, are mostly locally based folks defending their towns and villages.

2. When referring to the armed opposition keep using the magic word: AL QAEDA

3. Make cursory mention of the regime’s brutality (you won’t have any credibility if you don’t) but avoid resurrecting the roots of the conflict in peaceful opposition to Bashar’s dictatorship. Avoid mention of wanton use of air power against civilians in bread lines and in their homes.

4. Keep talking about NATO, the Gulf countries and Western support for opposition; that will boost Bashar’s anti-imperialist creds among the campus leftists.

5. Focus on faults of incompetent and disorganized Syrian opposition abroad instead of networks of activists and homegrown civil society already establishing governance inside.

6. Frame Russia as an honest broker trying to peacefully resolve conflict instead of a shrewd chess player that doesn’t give a damn about Syrian civilians and murdered tens of thousands of Chechens in an attempt to put down a rebellion in the 1990s.

7. Keep warning about consequences of Syria state’s collapse: sectarian war, refugees in Europe, rise of an Islamist state.

8. Keep raising rare instances of rebel misconduct and faked videos and frame them as emblematic of the overall opposition.

9. Make the opposition look intransigent; they’re the ones who won’t agree to a peaceful settlement, not the president who did no reforms for 10 years and dispatched shabiha to murder peaceful protesters when they spoke out.

10. Pray to God (even if you are an athiest) that the rebels don’t get to Damascus, open up the files and find out what you did for the regime, the details of conversations on how you got your visas and your access to officials.”

Exclusive: Bashar Assad wants war not peace reveals Syria’s former prime minister Riyad Hijab

Exclusive Telegraph article
The most senior politician to defect from the Bashar al-Assad’s regime has revealed that the President repeatedly rejected calls by his own government for a political compromise, in favour of all-out war.

The most senior politician to defect from the Bashar al-Assad's regime has revealed that the President repeatedly rejected calls by his own government for a political compromise, in favour of all-out war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) and former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab Photo: AFP/Getty Images
By , Amman,04 Nov 2012

In his first full interview with a Western newspaper since he fled to Jordan in August, Riyad Hijab, the former prime minister, told The Daily Telegraph that he and other senior regime figures pleaded with Mr Assad to negotiate with the Syrian opposition.

One week before his defection, Mr Hijab, the vice-president, the parliamentary speaker and the deputy head of the Baath party together held a private meeting with Mr Assad.

“We told Bashar he needed to find a political solution to the crisis,” he said. “We said, ‘These are our people that we are killing.’

“We suggested that we work with Friends of Syria group, but he categorically refused to stop the operations or to negotiate.”

Mr Hijab referred to the war waged against the Muslim Brotherhood by Mr Assad’s father, Hafez, which led to the deaths of up to 10,000 people in an assault on the city of Hama.

“Bashar really thinks that he can settle this militarily,” he said.

“He is trying to replicate his father’s fight in the 1980s.” Mr Hijab was speaking as key anti-regime figures gathered in the Qatari capital Doha to replace the fractured opposition Syrian National Council with a new government-in-exile. Once formed, the new Council would seek to gain formal international recognition, and, crucially, better weapons.

Mr Hijab said he rejected an offer to be part of the US-backed proposal, promising to be a “soldier in this revolution without taking a political position”.

He said the lack of serious action by the West had consolidated President Assad’s confidence.

“Bashar used to be scared of the international community – he was really worried that they would impose a no-fly zone over Syria,” he said. “But then he tested the waters, and pushed and pushed and nothing happened. Now he can run air strikes and drop cluster bombs on his own population.”

Mr Assad’s acceptance of ceasefire proposals by the United Nations envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi during the 19-month crisis was “just a manoeuvre to buy time for more destruction and killings”, he said.

Indeed in a speech to his cabinet Mr Assad extolled only the dictums of warfare, Mr Hijab said.

It was as he watched his leader speak – coldly, confidently and gripped by the blind conviction that only military force would crush his enemies, he said – that Mr Hijab knew he had no choice but to break away.

“My brief was to lead a national reconciliation government,” Mr Hijab said. “But in our first meeting Bashar made it clear that this was a cover. He called us his ‘War Cabinet’.” The explosion at the Damascus national security building that killed the country’s defence minister and the president’s brother-in-law marked a turning point, Mr Hijab said. After that, no holds were barred.

“The new minister of defence sent out a communiqué telling all heads in the military that they should do ‘whatever is necessary’ to win,” he said. “He gave them a carte blanche for the use of force.” In recent months the formal government had become redundant, Mr Hijab said. Real power was concentrated in the hands of a clique comprising Mr Assad, his security chiefs, relatives and friends.

Certain that he had lost all influence, and watching the tendrils of smoke rising from his home town of Deir al-Zour near the Iraqi-Syrian border after another wave of air strikes, Mr Hijab plotted his escape: “A brother spoke with one of the Free Syrian Army brigades in Damascus,” he said. “We had expected to be at the border in three hours, but it took us three days.”

Since then, the violence has worsened and new fronts have opened across the country. On Sunday a bomb exploded in the centre of Damascus, wounding 11 civilians, state television and activists reported. The blast was detonated close to the Dama Rose hotel, which hosted Mr Brahimi during his recent visit to Damascus.

Rebels also claimed to have seized an oilfield near Deir Al-Zour, while fighting continued around army and airbases west of Aleppo, which the regime have used to strike rebel-held areas in recent weeks.

Mr Hijab said the violence would continue and the regime would stay in power for as long as Russia and Iran continued to provide support. But even if they cut their allegiance, he said Mr Assad would most probably still refuse to quit.

“I am shocked to see Bashar do what he has doing,” he said. “He used to seem like a good human being, but he is worse than his father.

Hafez is a criminal for what he did in Hama, but Bashar is a criminal for what he is doing everywhere.”

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