Bashar al-Assad Isn't Going Anywhere (Voluntarily)

The Syrian dictator's interview with Barbara Walters suggests he has no plans of stepping down, moderating, or compromising

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Barbara Walters interviews Bashar al-Assad / ABC News

Who knows what's in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's head? The dictator, whose regime has killed an estimated 4,000 or more civilians this year, shrugged off one pointed question after another during an interview this week with Barbara Walters, his first Western media appearance since demonstrations began in Syria earlier this year. Whether Walters brought up the sanctions crippling Syria's economy, the increasingly common reports of security forces torturing children, or the bloody death of fellow dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Assad's demeanor remained chillingly calm, even relaxed.

When Walters told Assad that he was increasingly regarded around the world as a "dictator and a tyrant," he responded, "What's important how the Syrian people look at you, not how you look at yourself. So I don't have to look at myself." He doesn't have to look at himself, Assad believes, so he isn't. Maybe he's crazy, maybe he's deluded, or maybe he's just lying. It probably requires some combination of all three to lead a government that kills thousands of its own people.

Everyone expects dictators to lie about how they do business -- My people love me! We had to imprison those dissidents because they're secret terrorists! Of course I really won 99% of the vote! -- but Assad's description of events in Syria was wildly inaccurate even by the standards of Middle Eastern autocrats. He insisted that most of the people killed were regime supporters, not opponents; that Syria's economy is doing just fine; that most Syrians support his rule; and that security force abuses were either fabricated or not his responsibility.

Still, Assad's falsehoods and evasions were consistent, and that consistence says something about his current thinking. Judging by this interview, Assad appears to have no intention of resigning or changing his strategy, which has been one of no dialogue and unrelenting violence.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a February 3 (the day after one of his regime's bloodiest attacks on protesters) interview with Christiane Amanpour, made a point of showing remorse and taking some responsibility, a (failed) bid to turn the corner on Egypt's violence. He used the interview, in other words, to signal to the world that he was ready to compromise and moderate a little if it wold allow him to hold on to power. That signal was probably a lie, but at least he wanted to make it.

Assad, however, went out of his way to say that he feels no regret, remorse, or guilt at all. "I did my best to protect the people, so I cannot feel guilty, when you do your best. You feel sorry for the lives that has been lost, but you don't feel guilty -- when you don't kill people."

The signal Assad seemed to sending throughout the interview was that he has no intention of changing strategy, of acknowledging the protesters' demands, or of responding to global pressure against his regime. Even Muammar Qaddafi, in the desperation of his final doomed weeks, hinted at all three.

But Assad seemed so insistent that it's difficult to see how his conception of the past year could leave room for any moderation, compromise, or reform. If all Syrians loves his rule, there's no reason to consider changing it; if Syria is immune to outside pressure, there's no reason to respond to it; if security forces have behaved responsibly, there's no reason to reign them in. Even if these positions are all clearly based in lies, Assad could be trying to communicate something true. (Or that he wants us all to believe is true, anyway.) He seems to be telling protesters and world leaders that they all might as well back down because their efforts will not budge him one inch.

Though some media critics were disappointed by Walters' interview, it did lead Assad to reveal his intentions. His message to the world, delivered through one shrugging denial or smiling falsehood after another: I'm not going anywhere.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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