Assad’s Speech: Rhetoric of Arrogance and Insensitivity
It was a highly anticipated speech. Bashar Assad finally spoke to the Syrian people after months of silence. His behavior during the turmoil has been rather odd, eccentric, and arrogant. It seems that Assad never once attended the funeral of any Syrian, not even those members of his armed forces that he claims were killed by the opposition’s bullets. He did not once, to my knowledge, visit an injured Syrian in a hospital.
Assad seems unfazed by all the bloodshed around him. He has not spoken to the Syrian people in months, yet, he found plenty of time to meet with the most insignificant of Lebanese politicians. He even found time to meet with Talal Arslan, a man who commands the support of some 15 percent of the 5 percent of Lebanese who belong to the Druze faith.
On style, Assad has not changed. He still seems flippant when he talks about the turmoil in Syria. He still cracks jokes and can smile and laugh easily. If Syria (all of Syria and not just his regime as he often claims) is facing such a diabolical plot, how can he so easily laugh and smile? How can he not appear somber all the time given the death toll?
Assad has an excellent command of the Arabic language (especially given the semi-literate and illiterate state of many Arab leaders), but he puts it to use to be defensive about basic facts. He still finds it difficult to give in to the demands of many people in Syria, if not most people in Syria. His so-called reforms drag on and are referred to one committee after another. Assad does not seem rushed, and he expects the Syrian people to wait, and to wait indefinitely. Maybe Assad expects his son (and heir apparent, Hafez Assad junior) to complete the reforms in due time.
At one point, he even expressed puzzlement at the suggestion that he should form a national unity government in Syria. He said that there is unity in Syria, unlike countries that are deeply divided. He seems too arrogant to at least concede that many Syrians want him gone, even if there are many Syrians who still support him (and this point has to be stressed given the nature of Western and Arab [Saudi and Qatari] propaganda in their coverage of Syria.) He just can’t seem to admit that the country is at least divided, but not unanimously in favor of his ouster as Al Jazeera would have it seem. He even said that the Cabinet in Syria includes people from different backgrounds and currents.
This reminds me of the story about the last meeting between Salah al-Din al-Bitar (one of the founders of Baath Party) and Hafez Assad (Bashar’s father). The meeting took place shortly before the assassination of Bitar at hand of terrorists working most likely for Rifaat Assad (Bashar’s uncle). According to the account that historian Hanna Batatu shared with me, Bitar went on for hours about the need for democracy and reforms in Syria. Hafez, as was his custom, listened quietly for hours before he responded calmly. He said: “But Salah, you have been absent for years now. Syria has indeed changed. And we do have democracy in Syria.” Bitar went back to exile expressing the hopelessness of the country.
Assad spoke of the conspiracy against Syria (there is indeed a conspiracy by Gulf regimes, Israel and the US against his regime), and yet he talks about the Arab members of the conspiracy very carefully and generally. He would not dare name or identify one of those Arab governments he was complaining about. His reluctance to name Saudi Arabia or Qatar points to his readiness to reach an accommodation under the table to save his regime. He attacked Arab regimes but left it unclear as to who he was talking about. Arab viewers knew that he was talking about Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries but he did not dare name them.
He invoked all the slogans about Arabism and pointed out that Syria has a long history of defending Arabism. Yet, he forgot that his own media has been promoting little regarding Arabism. Instead, they have been promoting far more concerning narrow Syrian nationalism. Why did Assad now remember Arabism? And why is his media still invoking the most vulgar and Lebanese-style manifestations of narrow nationalism?
The speech will go down as yet another defensive attempt by Assad to pretend that all is well. His talk about conspiracies was not matched by specific points. His unwillingness to identify the conspiring Arab regimes by name reveals an obsession with saving his throne. The uprising in Syria continues while the conspiracy (led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar with the latter recently receiving enormous praise from Hillary Clinton) against the Syrian regime expands. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are trying to reshape the region in the service of US/Israeli interests. They are unflinching in their willingness to pose as guardians of Arab uprisings while guarding their own repressive unrepresentative regimes. The Syrian people are caught between the various conspiracies.
While the main camps in Lebanon are willing to use the Syrian people as fuel for their sectarian schemes, the GCC countries see the Syrian people as nothing more than tools for their own agenda. Who will stand up for the Syrian people? Certainly, not the Syrian regime and not the Syrian National Council which has become an official tool of Qatar and the GCC.