Syria’s President Assad: ’I live a normal life - it’s why I’m popular’

Three thousand demonstrators have died fighting his rule, but - in an exclusive interview - Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, tells Andrew Gilligan he will not go the way of Gaddafi.

When you go to see an Arab ruler, you expect vast, over-the-top palaces, battalions of guards, ring after ring of security checks and massive, deadening protocol. You expect to wait hours in return for a few stilted minutes in a gilded reception room, surrounded by officials, flunkies and state TV cameras. You expect a monologue, not a conversation. Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, was quite different.

The young woman who arranged the meeting picked me up in her own car. We drove for 10 minutes, then turned along what looked like a little-used side road through the bushes. There was no visible security, not even a gate, just a man dressed like a janitor, standing by a hut. We drove straight up to a single-storey building the size of a largeish suburban bungalow. The president was waiting in the hall to meet us.

We sat, just the three of us, on leather sofas in Assad’s small study. The president was wearing jeans. It was Friday, the main protest day in Syria: the first Friday since the death of Colonel Gaddafi had sunk in. But the man at the centre of it all, the man they wanted to destroy, looked pretty relaxed.

He thought the protests were diminishing. After they started, in March, “we didn’t go down the road of stubborn government. Six days after [the protests began] I commenced reform. People were sceptical that the reforms were an opiate for the people, but when we started announcing the reforms, the problems started decreasing... This is when the tide started to turn. This is when people started supporting the government... [but] being in the middle is very difficult when you have this strong polarisation.”

The problems were not mainly political, he thought. “It’s about the whole of society, the development of society. Different problems have erupted as one crisis. We adopted liberal economics. To open your economy without preparing yourself, you open up gaps between the social strata. If you do not get the right economic model, you cannot get past the problem.”

For Assad’s critics – who have expanded steadily over the last seven months to include not just the protesters, but Britain, France, the US, the United Nations and now the Arab League – these statements are simply delusional. “He has been talking about reform ever since he came to office [in 2000], and nothing serious ever happens,” said one of the protest leaders from the key opposition city of Homs. “Killing people is not an act of reform. We aren’t calling for economic or even political reform under Assad, but for the departure of this bloodstained president and free elections.”

The opposition appears, after a dip, to have been energised by Gaddafi’s demise. The death toll on Friday, they say, of 40, was the highest since April. Three thousand demonstrators have been killed by Assad’s security forces since March, according to the UN, a figure that includes 187 children. Yesterday, it was reported, the Syrian army was shelling civilian areas of Homs.

Yet Assad still has a number of cards that Libya’s recently-deceased colonel never possessed. Unlike Libya, the country is neither religiously nor ethnically homogeneous. For the moment, the regime appears still to be persuading many of Syria’s Christian and Alawite minority – together with some in the Sunni majority – that it is their best choice.

On Thursday night, the beginning of the Muslim weekend, Damascus’s Old City was heaving with people having a good time. Men and women were mixing freely. Alcohol was widely available. A pair of Christian Orthodox priests, in their long cassocks, walked through the crowded alleys, and small Christian shrines were tucked away in the corners. The regime is successfully pushing the message that all this is at risk. “I don’t like Assad, but I am worried that what follows could be worse,” said one of the partygoers. On Wednesday, Damascus witnessed a large pro-Assad demonstration: Western journalists who observed it say that the participants did not appear to have been coerced.

Assad himself could not be further from a ranting, Gaddafi-like Arab dictator. His English is perfect — he lived for two years in London, where he met his wife. In conversation he was open, even at times frank. “Many mistakes,” he admitted, had been made by the security forces – though no one, it seems, has been brought to book for them. He could both make, and take, a joke. A former president of the Syrian Computer Society, he sometimes explained things in computer terms.

Comparing Syria’s leadership with that of a Western country, he said, was like comparing a Mac with a PC. “Both computers do the same job, but they don’t understand each other,” he said. “You need to translate. If you want to analyse me as the East, you cannot analyse me through the Western operating system, or culture. You have to translate according to my operating system, or culture.” That’s the inner nerd in you speaking, I said, and he laughed out loud. I can’t imagine too many other Arab leaders you could get away with calling a nerd.

Assad lives in a relatively small house in a normal – albeit guarded – street. He believes that his modest lifestyle is another component of his appeal. “There is a legitimacy according to elections and there is popular legitimacy,” he said. “If you do not have popular legitimacy, whether you are elected or not you will be removed – look at all the coups we had.

The first component of popular legitimacy is your personal life. It is very important how you live. I live a normal life. I drive my own car, we have neighbours, I take my kids to school. That’s why I am popular. It is very important to live this way – that is the Syrian style.”

That might not amount to much against the pile of corpses in Homs, Hama, and elsewhere, but from conversations with residents in Damascus at least, it does in fact seem to make Assad somewhat better esteemed by his own people than many other Arab rulers.

Where is Syria going now? Homs, at least, may be heading out of the regime’s control. “Unlike any other large city, Homs is in complete revolt,” says Malik al-Abdeh, a leading London-based opposition figure who keeps in close touch with the city. “It’s been proving very difficult for the regime to control it.”

But elsewhere the regime appears to retain greater control. “Overall the regime has been quite cohesive,” says Mr al-Abdeh. “The military hasn’t deserted in large numbers.”

Kadri Jamil, an opposition figure in Damascus, says: “After seven months, we see that the government cannot stop the popular movement, but the popular movement cannot stop the government.”

There is disagreement about what to do next. Dr Jamil, and some of those who operate openly inside Syria, say the answer is genuine dialogue with, and reform from, the regime. “The problem is that the dialogue [offered so far] is shallow and just a tool to gain time,” says Jamil. “The government is not acting fast enough. They have one to two months before passing the point of no return.”

Malik al-Abdeh and others involved in the street protests dismiss any thought of talking to the government and say its killings have put it beyond the point of no return already. The first people to apply under a new law supposedly permitting demonstrations were arrested, they point out. For all the talk of new parties, regime sources say that Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which says that Assad’s Ba’ath party must lead, is unlikely to be changed in substantial form.

Increasingly, therefore, the protest wing of the opposition are talking about something they previously resisted: foreign intervention. “They are more willing to entertain the idea,” said Mr al-Abdeh. “People want at the very least some kind of no-fly zone that legitimises an armed uprising against Bashar, or maybe some other kind of intervention that will encourage people in the regime to jump ship.

Last Friday’s demonstrations called for such a no-fly zone.

Last week, after the success of military intervention in Libya, the former Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, became the first mainstream US figure to canvass the idea. One suggestion is that foreign air power could enforce some sort of enclave inside Syria which would become the country’s “Benghazi,” a base for operations against the government.

The regime’s response to this new danger appears two-fold. Last week, some Damascus-based opposition groups were allowed to hold a press conference in the capital. They criticised the government, calling for the release of political prisoners and the end of security force violence — but also, crucially, attacked any form of foreign intervention and demanded only an “internal solution” to the crisis.

Kadri Jamil and others are fiercely critical of the Syrian National Council, the new Turkey-based opposition umbrella group.

Malik al-Abdeh and other people allied to the SNC, which represents, they say, “80 per cent” of the Syrian opposition, decry figures like Jamil as regime stooges. “People like that are very useful for Bashar at this stage,” al-Abdeh says. “I don’t think they enjoy popular support.”

The regime’s other tactic is to issue dire warnings to the West about the perils of involvement in a place this complicated. As President Assad told The Sunday Telegraph: “Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the faultline, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake…. Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?

Such fears are real, which may explain why there has been so little Western enthusiasm, so far, for the military option, or for the SNC – which has only been recognised by one country, Libya, to date.

The practical difficulties are also formidable. Libyan regime forces were comparatively weak. To move between towns, they needed to cross empty desert in which they could be relatively easily attacked from the air.

Syria’s forces are much stronger, and the population centres clustered much more closely together.

Yet there is growing concern that the violence of the regime, and the increasing counter-violence of some of the opposition, could lead to a sort of “earthquake” anyway: civil or sectarian war across at least some of the country. There seems, from Damascus at least, still to be limited space for real reform and change to be made. But it needs to be done quickly.

Daily Telegraph (UK)