What does Assad really think about Syria's civil war?

President Bashar al-Assad Image copyright Reuters

A cynical liar or a president fighting for the best interests of his country? As Syria enters its fifth year of conflict, how much responsibility does President Bashar al-Assad believe he bears for his nation's crisis?

I have been wondering why Bashar al-Assad said something to me that was patently not true.

In the interview that we did in Damascus for the BBC I asked him about the barrel bombs that the Syrian armed forces have been dropping on areas held by rebels, which also happen to be places where civilians live. The barrels contain a lethal cocktail of explosive and projectiles. Assad said that the suggestion barrel bombs were killing civilians was childish.

But there is plenty of video of barrel bombs being dropped and exploding. You can see some of it on the BBC website. And there's lots of testimony from eye witnesses.

Like many others, I have seen the aftermath of attacks. In my case, it was in Douma, which is a rebel held suburb of Damascus. The explosion wrecked two blocks of flats, opposite each other on either side of a residential street.

Barrel bombs get dropped, not aimed. That makes them an indiscriminate weapon. International humanitarian law tells belligerents to do all they can to protect the lives of civilians. Dropping unguided barrels of explosive doesn't count as trying very hard.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A cloud of smoke rises above Douma

Assad pointed out, and of course he's right, that rebels attack government held territory and kill civilians, often indiscriminately. He said death comes with war. Again, all correct. But two wrongs don't make a right and the whole point of international humanitarian law is to regulate the use of force so that non-combatants are protected.

Perhaps Assad's remark about barrel bombs was aimed at supporters at home, as he knew the interview would be on Syrian TV as well as the BBC. Maybe he doesn't care that outside Syria his statement would be received with what I will call, politely, scepticism. Assad himself is extremely polite. He comes across as friendly and sincere.

Perhaps the president believes what he says. Perhaps his generals tell him they don't kill civilians and he believes them. Maybe he is a cynical liar. I don't know. It's all guesswork.

Ever since he inherited the job from his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, diplomats, journalists and anyone with an interest in Syria have spent a lot of time trying to work Bashar out. Many of the questions over the last 15 years have revolved around one central issue - is Bashar al-Assad really in charge?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hafez al-Assad with his wife Anisseh and their children (L to R) Maher, Bashar, Bassel, Majd and Bushra

At the start of his presidency, Bashar had a hard act to follow. His father was a remarkable and ruthless man. He came from a poor background, rose through the air force and the Baath party and came to power as part of a military junta in 1963. By 1970 he was in charge of the country.

Since the end of French colonial rule in the 1940s Syria had been unstable, lurching from coup to coup. Yet by the time he died, Hafez al-Assad was able to pass the top job on to his son. And not even the son who had been groomed for the job.

Bashar's older brother Bassel was supposed to succeed his father. But in 1994 he was killed in a crash when he was driving too fast in a fog on his way to Damascus airport. Bassel was handsome, a noted equestrian and cavalry officer, and head of his father's personal security.

Bashar was a doctor, not a soldier. When he came to power he was in the shadow of his older brother, as well as his father.

The succession wouldn't have happened like that without trusted lieutenants. So in Bashar's first few years there were questions about whether he made the decisions, or whether he was in the hands of his father's old comrades.

Bashar talked about reform. He seemed to be a break with the past. Western leaders tried to befriend him. Tony Blair considered giving him an honorary knighthood. But stubbornly, President Assad wouldn't give up his opposition to Israel and his support for its enemies.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Bashar al-Assad in his interview with Jeremy Bowen

I think Bashar knows what he's doing. Syria is the Assad family business, and he inherited the chairmanship. But he rules by consensus as the rest of the family and its long-standing friends have big stakes and a big say.

From what he has said to me, my best guess is that Bashar al-Assad believes, very deeply, that he is fighting for the survival of everything that matters to him. Human beings can use that thought to justify a great deal.

As for what the rest of the world thinks about him - I don't think he cares much.

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