Middle East

Between the lines: Assad interview

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speak on Syrian TV (21 Aug 2011)
Image caption President Assad has ruled Syria since the death of his father in 2000

In his first interview with the US media since the uprising began in March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was clearly intent on persuading Washington that his regime's reaction to the challenge was normal, and that it would survive all the pressures currently being mounted against it.

He argued that armed militant attacks had been a feature from the beginning, one that was getting worse and had killed more than 1,100 members of the security forces as well as many civilians - something that he said would not have been tolerated by the US or any other nation.

Much has been made out of the incident when the interviewer, Barbara Walters, referred to "his" security forces, and the president interrupted to say they were not "his" but belonged to the state.

Sensitive to the conclusions drawn from that, the Syrian foreign ministry hastily convened a news conference to assert that Mr Assad's remark had been taken out of context, that he was not trying to shirk responsibility, but was merely pointing out that the armed forces were a state institution, not his personal property.

The president admitted that "mistakes" had been made on the ground, but said this was a case of errors committed by individuals, not the result of state policies or orders from above.

New position?

The interview amounted to a detailed defence of the regime's behaviour and position, as the pressures and sanctions pile up.

Many of Mr Assad's arguments have been stated before, but there were some new elements.

One was his recognition that the majority of Syrians were neither for nor against the regime, but in the middle.

Image caption In the interview President Al-Assad insisted he still had popular support

It was in the hope of winning them over that he had launched his programme of reforms, he said. No leadership could rule Syria if the bulk of the people were against it.

Another new element was his recognition that there are disturbances and instability in most parts of the country, and that army soldiers and officers have been defecting.

But he said that the country's overall situation was stable, and he dismissed the military defections as normal in any army at any time, with a higher percentage rebelling at the moment because of "this situation".

Weathering the storm

Despite these admissions, Mr Assad insisted that the country was not on the brink of civil war, which would require, in his interpretation, a divided army as opposed to individual desertions.

He was also sanguine about the effect of recently announced Arab League and Turkish sanctions, which he said would have the silver lining of stimulating domestic productivity and resourcefulness, though he admitted they might hurt.

All in all, Mr Assad gave a fair impression of someone who believed he could weather the storms that undoubtedly lie ahead.

The country is waiting to hear back from the Arab League in response to its qualified acceptance of a protocol for the deployment of outside observers, as part of a broader Arab peace plan.

League members are holding consultations over Syria's proposal to add exchanges and clarifications as annexes integral to the agreement, and over its demand for more involvement in the movements and composition of the observer mission.

Slide into conflict

International hopes for a peaceful solution are pinned to the Arab initiative, which demands a complete halt to violence and the withdrawal of armed forces from the streets.

Image caption Mr Assad was dismissive of the sanctions recently imposed on Syria by the Arab League

Opposition leaders are deeply sceptical about Syria's acceptance of the plan in principle, and accuse Damascus of playing for time while trying to look good.

If the proposals were to be implemented, activists believe large areas of the country would spin out of government control.

Meanwhile the violence continues in many areas, with the brunt of it focused on the country's third city, Homs.

With incidents occurring daily, some involving reports of sectarian or communal reprisals, and attacks on regime forces by deserting troops or armed insurgents, the situation there has prompted warnings that the country is sliding into civil war.

As with Iraq in 2006-7, there is much debate over what exactly constitutes civil war, and no accepted universal definition of what it is.

But in some parts of Syria, if not outright civil war, certainly a dangerous element of civil strife seems to be taking hold, with sectarian sentiment and fears on the rise.