SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A transcript of the recent version of Assad’s memoir may have been smuggled out of Syria. Titled “how I destroyed my country and got away with it,” it is rumored to detail the harrowing rise, fall and rise again of Syria’s famed dictator. Just two years ago Assad was on the verge of being deposed after he was accused of using chemical weapons. He had to submit to a confiscation of the weapons after the Western powers were unable to get the votes necessary for military intervention. In a sense he got off lucky after the Western backed bombing of Libya had forced the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi and Libya and Libya had sunk into chaos. This fact was driven home by the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September of 2012.
Syria’s Assad family seemed to be on the way down. After the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011 the country was suspended from the Arab League. Qatar, Turkey, and other countries lined up against Assad. How could this man survive? He had come to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafiz, and sold himself as a reformer. In 2007 he hosted power US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. In a prelude to the Iran deal, John Kerry met Assad in 2009 and hailed the time as a momentous “moment of change.”
But the optometrist turned dictator felt his days were numbered. He wondered if he would end up like Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi. The “butcher of Damascus” looked dismally at the future. THe days of his wife selling herself as the queen of “modern Syria” were over. Those good old days when FoxNews came to Damascus and talked about Syrian cinema were no more. Where was George Galloway to send him nice utterances? Why hadn’t he remained in England. He was an unlikely leader with his nasal, sweet voice and his fumbling through prayers at the mosque.
But then something interesting happened. ISIS emerged as a major player in 2014 and swept across the border into Iraq. It slaughtered Yezidis and engendered a massive worldwide coalition against it. Suddenly it wasn’t Damascus destabilizing the region, but ISIS. Where he could Assad withdrew in the face of ISIS, letting them capture Palmyra easily and without bothering to protect the famed archaeological site, so that he could then point to the subsequent destruction ISIS did.
Assad’s narrative that he was fighting “terrorism”, rather than that he was the terrorist, could finally be packaged and sold. 4 million Syrian refugees? 250,000 dead? No problem. Assad and his Shia militias and Iranian weapons were the “defenders of the minorities.” He prized himself on that, using Christians, Druze, his own Alawite minority and others to fight for him. Even as the army suffered 80,000 casualties and Alawite levies were returning to their hometowns, he was calculating the future. He gave an amnesty for deserters. He keenly listened to reports that the US State Department wanted negotiations that would keep him in power. Gone were the words that a Syria without Assad was necessary. Russia had evacuated citizens in 2013, fearing Western airstrikes, but now the Russians were back. No one cared now about the barrel bombs he was raining on Aleppo.
On the recent Eid to end Ramadan Assad basked in all-smiles. “I’ve done it,” he thought, I’ve survived just like Dad said I would. The Iran deal was being inked in Vienna and soon the Revolutionary Guards and the “plumber”, General Qasem Suleimani would be in Damascus to direct operations. Already Hezbollah was gaining ground at Zabadani. He gloves could come off in the artillery strikes on the civilians. “No prisoners, no mercy, the West doesn’t care, finish them off,” was the motto. Speaking at a conference on terrorism in Damascus Syria’s portly foreign minister Walid Muallem said it was clear the Iran deal would not affect Iran’s support of the regime. In the opposite the regime was moving from win to win. Rumors abound that Tunisia may restore diplomatic ties with Damascus; and that other Arab powers will follow suit. The “united front” against Assad is crumbling as the Gulf States and Turkey scramble to figure out what to do as Iran is ascendent in the region.
“No better time than now to update the memoirs,” Assad told his staff a few weeks ago. “We had a manpower shortage, it’s true,” but now the new day is shining. What should Assad call his memoirs, he might ponder while relaxing at night listening to the sound of barrel bombs being built? “How I destroyed a country and got away with it.”