By Wael Sawah
George Malbrunot from Le Figaro, a right-wing French daily, interviewed Bashar Assad this week. Analysts took pause at several of points mentioned by Assad in the interviews. They questioned Assad’s description of Obama as “weak,” the way Assad challenged the United States and France to provide the evidence they have against him regarding the use of chemical weapons, and his pledge to retaliate if France takes part in foreign strikes against his forces. Analysts, however, failed to highlight this denial that his regime has arrested, tortured, and killed peaceful opposition activists.
Le Figaro asked Assad how the war in Syria could be stopped. Assad’s reply was anything but conciliatory. “Discussing a solution at the beginning of the crisis is very different from discussing it today,” he said. “Today we are fighting terrorists, 80-90% of them affiliated with Al-Qaeda. These terrorists are not interested in reform, or politics, or legislation. The only way to deal with the terrorists is to strike them; only then can we talk about political steps.”
Assad has brushed away any possibility of convening in Geneva, or any other place, as long as his struggle is with “terrorists” who can only be dealt with by eliminating them.
In his reply, Assad simply ignored the fact that his forces are not fighting whom he describes as “terrorists,” but his own people whom he is supposed to protect. The most optimistic figure on the number of victims in Syria is 100,000 people. Most of them are civilians. The Violation Documenting Center in Damascus, a widely-regarded and professional documentation center, has documented 72,165 victims by name, date, age, and gender. Civilians account for 54,446 of them; the others are soldiers and militia from among the Assad regime and the rebels. Children number 7,022, and 5,101 of the total are women.
Mr. Malbrunot did not know those statistics of course, so he let the answer go, and moved to another question. “Mr. President,” he asked, “are you willing to invite the opposition to come to Syria, to guarantee their safety in order for you all to sit around a table and find a solution?”
The President responded, “In January of this year we launched an initiative that addresses the points you raised and others in order to move forward with a political solution. However, this opposition that you refer to was manufactured abroad – manufactured by Qatar, France and others – it is not a Syrian opposition, and as such it takes orders from its masters who have forbidden it from engaging with this initiative. Additionally, since they were manufactured abroad, they lack local public support.”
Again Assad rejects any possibility of reaching a peaceful solution with the Syrian opposition, branding it as “non-Syrian” and an opposition that has been created and – of course – controlled by the foreign enemies.
Malbrunot argued that some [opposition] did not respond [to the initiative] for fear of their security, fearing imprisonment like Abdul Aziz al-Khayer. Malbrunot asked, “Can you provide them with guarantees?”
Assad, with considerable nerve, said, “We have provided guarantees and I have spoken of these… including guarantees of security to any member of the opposition wanting to come to Syria for the purpose of dialogue. However, they were either not willing to come, or maybe they weren’t given permission to come. We have not killed or captured any member of the opposition. [As for] Abdul Aziz al-Khayer, [his] friends are all in Syria – you can see for yourself. Why would we target one of them and ignore the rest? Where is the logic in that?”
As simply as this, Assad denies that he has captured or killed any member of the opposition. What about Omar Aziz, who was arrested, tortured, and killed in prison? What about Mazen Darwish, the President of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who was arrested, tortured, and is now subject to the Terrorism Court? Khalil Matouk, a human rights lawyer, was arrested last year, and has been missing ever since. Ghayath Matar, the organizer of the Rose Campaign, in which the people of Daraya carried a bottle of water and a rose to the very soldiers who had been bombing them, was arrested in 2011 and his body was delivered to his family a few days later. Ayham Ghazoul is a medical student who participated in several peaceful protests and helped injured victims who had been wounded by regime forces. Ghazoul was arrested in 2012, released, and arrested again in 2013. Three days later he died under torture.
I can on go for much, much longer, but Assad said he did not arrest or kill any opposition member. What about Burhan Ghaliyon, George Sabra, Ahmad Jarba, Mouaz al-Khatib and many others who have been referred in absentia to the Terrorism Court? How would these people risk coming to Syria to start a dialogue?
Now Abdulaziz al-Khayer. “Why would I arrest Abdul Aziz al-Khayer and leave his “friends” free?” Assad asked Malbrunot. The latter felt helpless. He would not know why. He would not know that al-Khayer is an Alawite dissident, while the others are not. Assad’s greatest concern comes from the possibility that Alawites join the revolution against him. But Khayer is not only an Alawite, he comes from the same town as the Assad family: Qerdaha.
Moreover, Khayer comes from a very respected, well-established family that enjoys support and a good reputation among Alawites in general. Finally, Khayer did not agree with his “friends” on the peaceful way they wanted to oppose Assad. It is remarkable that when Khayer was abducted with two of his colleagues, he had just returned from a trip intended for talks in China.
How would Malbrunot know about all of this? Why would he care in the first place? He was charmed with Assad’s attitude during the interview.
“Assad received me at the door,” he said, “and was keen to give the impression that he was miserable and he still controls the situation.”
He said in a piece after the interview that Assad looked “calm, and rather cold; he did not want to give an impression of intimacy.”
Lebanese analyst RandaTakiddintakes a key lesson from the interview.“Assad's interview with Le Figaro once again confirms his denial of reality,” Takiddin wrote for al-Hayat. Assad also threatens the French interests, reminding us of“his history, and the history of his murderous regime.”
Takiddin compares Assad’s threats in Le Figaro to the way he “threatened the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri during their final meeting in Damascus, saying that he would bring down Lebanon on the heads of Hariri and Jacques Chirac. He is renewing his threats against French interests if France takes part in the military strike on Syria.”
There is one trivial detail—France is not Lebanon.