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The cult the twisted, terrifying last days of assad’s syria


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The cult the twisted, terrifying last days of assad’s syria

  1. 1. The Cult: The Twisted, Terrifying Last Days of Assad’s SyriaTheo PadnosOctober 4, 2011 | 12:00 amMany Damascenes these days prefer to watch the government-run TV stations. Elsewhere, the news isbad. The local channels, with local announcers, speaking in proper Syrian Arabic, are often sweet. Oftenthe broadcasters on these stations are beautiful young women. They smile a lot. Their channels say thatin some outlying districts, vandals and religious fanatics have moved in, and have had to be removed bythe army. But now all is back to normal.One cannot trade one’s Syrian pounds for dollars in Damascus anymore. One cannot travel to the outlyingdistricts on Thursday nights without a local ID. But otherwise, life, for most people in most places,continues as normal. There have been no nationwide general strikes, no camp-ins, as in Yemen, and nomajor splits in the army, as in Libya. The buses run. The internet works, if slowly. The merchants who sellyou pistachios still utter lovely phrases of piety and brotherhood, as they’ve always done, and if you tellpeople that you love Syria, and especially love the Syrian people, they will sometimes cry in front of youon the street.Meanwhile the most blood curdling videos, filmed in Syria, run day and night on Al Jazeera. The army hasclearly attacked parts of Homs and Latakia with tanks. Every now and then, even in Central Damascus,one hears shouting in the streets. The demonstrators chant, “He who won’t participate, he has nodecency!” or “The people and the army are one!” The noise rises like a whirlwind from an alley, rattles thewindows for a moment, and then dissipates into a neighboring block. Within minutes the streets are asthey were before: hot and tense and quiet.Many people one meets in Damascus suspect the West wishes to do to Syria what it did to Iraq and thatonly President Assad stands in the way of the next Operation Desert Storm. Many feel that the vandalsthe president is confronting out in the provinces will drag the country into a civil war if they’re not defeatednow. When the admirers of the president meet, it doesn’t take much for them to see through the entireconspiracy: The foreign media, in combination with hostile governments, have worked a psy-ops campaignon the demonstrators. Now these dupes are throwing their lives away to no purpose. It’s sad perhaps, butorder must be maintained.
  2. 2. You can live for days in Damascus having only conversations that follow this logic. After a while, you beginto feel that you have strayed into a magic kingdom and that everyone around you is living under a spell.One Friday, during an especially restive period in July, I sat in a café in the old city while demonstratorswere being murdered in the surrounding suburbs. In the café, the state TV, Syria One, showed old men inrobes ambling away from afternoon prayers. A little later on, it showed a handful of youths pushing adumpster about in a nearby suburb. “Five or six kids. They threw trash in the road and ran away. That’sall,” said one cafe patron to a waiter in a loud voice. And there it was, the Syrian magic trick at work: TheTV had shown tranquil Friday afternoon scenes. Before our eyes, an empty passageway stretched towardStraight Street in one direction and the Omayed Mosque in the other. Somewhere far away, outside Syria,some “journalist” or “interest” or “element” was spreading rumors of nineteen people killed and chaos in thestreets. “Why do they do this?” the pro-government people in Syria want to know. “Why do they hate us?”For their part, the demonstrators are often just as baffled. Recently, a video appeared on YouTube inwhich demonstrators in Hama tried to engage the army in a discussion. In the video, a clutch of youngmen stand before a government building, apparently occupied by snipers. Protestors have just been shot.“Hey! Those are our brothers you’re shooting,” they yell. “They’re your brothers.” Silence. “No one isshooting you, brother! What are you doing?” More silence. For a little while, the people in the streetwander around in circles, clasping their heads. Then there is more shooting and the camera clatters to theground.Anyone who has spent time in Syria lately will recognize the silence that emanates from the governmentbuilding in this video. This is the power governing Syria at the moment. If you encounter the securityforces at a highway checkpoint, you’ll hear it as the officer in the leather jacket inspects your ID. Youngmen in civilian clothes are cradling machine guns behind him. No one says a word.The silence is especially loud on Friday mornings in the squares surrounding the ministry of the interior.From 8:00 onward, police buses on their way to Kisweh, Medan, Qaboon, and wherever else protests arelikely to flare up roll through these squares. The passersby in the street know that the bus passengers willsoon be killing people, and that their weapons are loaded now. No taxis get in their way. The pedestriansstare at the pavement. The buses glide by like ships on a lake. No one wants to notice what the policeare up to because noticing might attract notice. In any case, the buses no longer hold much mystery. Thedemonstrators will soon be chanting. They will soon be shot.
  3. 3. It is true that next Friday, they will clap and sing and carry on in the street, and that this is always arepudiation, among other things, of the silence. But the chanting will bring out the officers and the officerswill bring out their rifles and the rifles, sooner rather than later, will restore the silence.IT WOULD BE INTERESTING to know more about the ideology of those who are imposing this regimen ofkilling on their fellow citizens. Twenty-six hundred citizens, say the human rights organizations, have beenkilled so far, with no end in sight. Are the army units doing this in the name of religion?Just about every observer who has analyzed the conflict in the western press—Robert Fisk in TheIndependent, Anthony Shadid in The New York Times, Malise Ruthven in The New York Review ofBooks—has reminded readers that beneath everything else in Syria, there lies the bitterness of the Sunni-Alawi rivalry. There are about three and a half million Alawis in Syria (out of a total population of 22million). It will not do to impugn an entire religion, but those who’ve written about this topic do not fail toobserve that the most influential positions in the army are occupied by Alawis, that the all-powerfulmukhabarat, or secret service, is dominated at every level by Alawis, that Alawi officers havesuperintended every large-scale episode of killing in Syria in recent years (at the Tadmoor Prison in 1980,in Hama in 1982, and now in Deraa, and Hama again), and that the family which has been inflicting thisvariety of civic calm on Syria for the last 40 years has been an Alawi one.I lived in Syria from 2007 to 2010 (and I have since returned three times, most recently this past June andJuly).When I first moved to the country, I had been reading the same writers everyone reads—ThomasFriedman, Patrick Seale, Robert Kaplan. As a student in a Sunni academy in Damascus, I could see rightaway that there was indeed an ominous force in the city, and that it didn’t dwell in the neighborhoodmosques, but rather emanated from the higher spheres—the mountaintop palaces, the defense ministry,the interior ministry. That is to say, it emanated from the seats of Alawi power.One of the first things one learns in such academies is that the secret police are everywhere. They drivethe taxis, they pray next to you in the mosques, and they are listening to your phone conversations. Thesecond thing one learns is that however affable the stranger next to you seems—and many are lovely—hewill betray you. If the officer who betrays you is not himself an Alawi, he will turn you over to thesuperstructure of Alawite authority in Syria. Now you are in trouble. Is it because they often have light hairand blue eyes that other Syrians sometime refer to the Alawis as al Almaan—“the Germans”? Or is itbecause their blood is thought to run very cold?
  4. 4. As a student of Islam in Syria, you’re not supposed to pursue this line of questioning. You’re supposed tobe afraid.I had Yemeni stamps in my passport. Yemen is a stronghold of the Sunnis. Try to get a newpassport, I was told. I used to ride my bike through a neighborhood, near the president’s house, in whichthe mukhabarat stood on the street corners, day and night, surveilling the passing traffic. Are you crazy?people asked me.Beards are an issue in Syria. If you have a bushy, pious religious-seeming one, you’re straightwayidentified as a Sunni. This can invite the attention of the mukhabarat. Ditto too much loafing in themosque. Ditto religious clothing and language. “Hey whassup, sir. Wanna cigarette?” is an appropriate andsafe way to greet someone who might work for the security services in Syria. The formula I learned inYemen, “May Allah open the way for you, brother,” is dangerous.Actually the student of Islam in Syria is in a strange position. Every day his teachers ask him to meditateon the power of almighty Allah, the king of all the worlds, and every day his teachers tremble before themightier, more fearsome power of the Alawi. The teachers are positively transfixed. Nor will they explainthe situation. Either they are too worried or they work for the secret police or some combination of thesecircumstances is at work.Given all this, you can see why the think-piece writers often place the Sunni-Alawi divide at the center oftheir analyses. But their analyses are not quite correct. The dark force in Syria is not really a religiousrivalry. It’s not a single family either. What might it be?ANYONE HOPING TO UNCOVER the dark strain within Alawism by exploring the doctrines themselveswill be disappointed. Maybe a better way to say this is, if you’re looking for a pleasant religion thatharmonizes with the natural elements, this is the faith for you.Alawis believe all humans were once stars, that by a seven-step process of metempsychosis, a pious soulcan regain his place in the Milky Way and that impious souls come back as animals. Alawis celebrate theZoroastrian holiday Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring, and sometimes celebrate Christmas. It’s notvery Islamic to drink wine. It’s very un-Islamic to read esoteric meanings into the Koran. Alawis use winein their rituals and believe that the manifest meaning of the Koran (and the Sharia) is a veil that coverstruer, deeper meanings. Traditionally, Alawis have not built mosques but have rather prayed in the familyhome, or out of doors. They are said to worship the sun and the moon because these are aspects of the
  5. 5. divine; the air, because god has dispersed himself into the ether; the stars, because one’s ancestors abidethere; and the fourth Caliph, Ali, because he is the patron of their sect.The religion emerged in the tenth century in a pocket of coastal mountains in northeastern Syria. Thesehills remain their homeland. When I first arrived in Syria, I was under the impression that if you walked upthe right dirt roads in this alpine corner of the country, you would eventually come across villages in whichthe old faith flourished. I was under the impression that if you came on weekends you would spot theluxury sedans of regime apparatchiks who had driven up from Damascus. They would have come home tobe among their own, to walk through the orchards for which the region is famous, and to renew theiracquaintance with the stars. Whatever darkness there is within Alawism, I assumed, would make itselfknown to whoever studied Alawism here, among the cherry trees and the apparatchiks.YOU CANNOT DO THIS, it turns out. In the first place, Alawism is essentially a secret. It doesn’tproselytize as Sunni Islam does but rather selects its initiates from the male children of Alawite families,and only from those deemed worthy of instruction. In the second place, Alawism doesn’t exist anymore.Perhaps some ethnologist will yet discover traces of it in a valley somewhere, but, these days, Alawis inSyria describe their beliefs in the same terms Sunni Muslims use. They believe in a single god, that oneshould pray to Mecca (never to the sun), and that Christmas is for Christians. One’s ancestors, for theirpart, are in their graves, awaiting the day of judgment, which is where Sunni Islam believes them to be.It’s true that you hear rumors of still-extant Alawi rites now and then, but it’s hard to find anyone whotakes these ceremonies seriously. “The ‘initiation ritual’ of male Alawis into the religion consists of kissinga few hands and memorizing a seriously ridiculous script in a small memo book,” wrote a blogger callinghimself “Khudr” recently on the website Syria Comment:Frequently, one is given the script without his “teacher” or initiator ever bothering to see afterwardswhether you memorized it or not. Most of the time your “initiator” knows that your opinion of the wholeprocess and the script is as high as your opinion of “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.It might seem unfair to accuse the most famous Alawi of them all, Hafez Al Assad, of killing Alawism buthe is almost certainly the guilty party. More than any other bit of evidence, his motive damns him. Whenhe assumed control of the country in 1971, he came with visions of a Baathist utopia shining in his eyes.He needed three and a half million ultra-loyal, ultra-motivated helpers to persuade the Sunnis (74percent) and the Christians (10 percent) to love the Baathists. The variety of ultra-loyalism Hafez Al
  6. 6. Assad valued precluded loyalty to a religious sect. The solution: Cancel Alawism. If the Alawis wanted areligious identity, Hafez Al Assad declared, they could very well be Sunnis.In 2005, a Syrian dissident, “Karfan,” at the website Syria Exposed, described Assad’s program of“Sunnifaction.” “The extreme policy,” he wrote, “took the shape of so many aspects that everybody here [inSyria] knows very well”:Introducing only pure Sunni Islam education to all schools; Banning any public manifestation or evenmentioning of any Alawie religious activities; Banning and oppressing any Alawie religious organizations orany formation of a unified religious council or a higher religious authority; … Building Sunni-style mosquesin every little Alawite village and encouraging people to perform the pilgrimage.WHEN I’M IN SYRIA, I often wonder if it’s possible to cancel a religion. In the day time, when policeofficers might be watching, I ask polite questions of strangers, and I suppose that it must be. At night, Iask other questions—or sometimes I just sit in a dark cafe and listen to rumors—and then I know no onehas cancelled Alawism, nor is the idea plausible. The faith lives on. It has mutated under the Assads, andisn’t seen in the open—but then it has always been a secret religion.Last summer, I had a conversation with a neighbor in Damascus who told me the following story: In 1994,Basil Al Assad, Hafez’s eldest son, was an internationally renowned horseman, a natural leader among hisfellows in the army, and the favored child (among five) in the Assad family. No one doubted he wouldsomeday rule the country. When he drove his Mercedes into a bridge abutment in January of that year,the Alawis of Syria were shocked into a kind of delirium. For three days the country stopped working, andonly recordings of the Koran played on state TV. Schools and hospitals lost their old names and becameBasil the Martyr Primary School, Basil the Martyr Eye and Ear Clinic, and so forth. Not long after Basil’sdeath, a group of young Alawis invaded a cemetery on Baghdad Street, near my neighbor’s house inDamascus. They made for the section reserved for the pilots and soldiers who’d been killed in the warswith Israel—the martyrs plot—and proceeded to smash up the headstones. They destroyed the gravemarkers of the Sunni and Alawi martyrs alike. My neighbor explained: The Alawi faithful couldn’t abide thethought that Basil would have to share the level of heaven on which martyrs dwell with other, lesserbeings.Recently, reports of incidents similarly tinged with religious feeling have been filtering into Damascus—forinstance: Sunni detainees, shot by the Shabeeha, pro-Bashar vigilantes, for refusing to render the Islamic
  7. 7. testament of faith as, “there is no god but Bashar,” or for refusing to prostrate themselves over portraits ofthe president. In Homs, according to some reports, the Alawis have erected a death zone around a minorstatue of Hafez Al Assad, and have been shooting those they suspect of approaching this totem with illintentions.This is exceptional behavior, of course. In normal times, the Assad worshipers have simply built up theircult in silence, without making a show of their activities. As “Khudr” also observed in his Syria Commentpiece, this was important spiritual work for them. Hafez Al Assad’s urging them to behave like Sunnis hadthe effect of setting them adrift in Syria. Now this obscure sect, formerly confined to the mountains nearLatakia, was in need of a home. It turned out that employment in a totalitarian regime accommodatedthem nicely:the only meeting ground or assembly point for Alawis, where we didn’t have to pretend that we weresomething we weren’t, was deep in the inner sanctums of the security state. We found ourselves in theclubby security of the secret services, the Republican Guard, the army officer academies, and the workerand agricultural syndicates in the coastal area. These were all regime sanctioned and establishedinstitutions that linked our identity to the security state and Assad rule.Until his death in 2000, Hafez Al Assad worked at bringing the rest of Syria along. Perhaps he didn’t givehis fellow citizens much choice in the matter. In any case, he was a charismatic leader. He controlled apowerful police force. His Baath Party utopia was no paradise but for 40 years the sects have been atpeace, and no outside power has invaded or threatened to invade. Every morning for three generations,the nation’s schoolchildren have risen to hail Syria as the “sacred sanctuary of the Arabs” (the first lines ofthe national anthem) and “the abode of the stars” (a succeeding line).Many millions of people in Syria continue to believe in the sacredness of this sanctuary. Many millionscontinue to believe that the people who have led the country for the last 40 years are themselves sacred.This doesn’t require the mental gymnastics it might seem, from abroad, to require. Walk into almost anyrestaurant in any neighborhood in Damascus and there they are, in pastel, against a black background,with faint evening clouds in the distance: the dead Basil, the dead father, and the surviving brotherBashar. These are Syria’s patron saints. They are often depicted in aviator glasses (Hafez was a pilot),and always Hafez and Basil appear to hover over the shoulders of Bashar, like angels from beyond the
  8. 8. grave. The effect is meant to be a little spiritual and a little spooky. It does add a jarring note to the diningexperience, I’ve found.Then again, these displays are not meant for foreigners. They are meant to suggest, especially to children,that the Assads breathe a finer air than ordinary Syrians. See the deep blue in the eyes of those heroes?See the ethereal clouds amongst which they live? Here is a family that enjoys a friendly relationship withprovidence.Somehow, especially in the early years, Hafez kept this illusion intact. The rest of the agreement heestablished with the Syrian people followed naturally from this premise. Political life, under this agreement,was to be simple: There would be none. There would be the Baath Party, period. Military life would alsobe simple: There would be compulsory military service, and a permanent enemy (“our neighbor”) to thesouth. Members of all sects could flourish in this army, and everyone would be equal. Alawis, however,would be more equal. They would be known to the ruling family though networks of cousinship. Allsensitive positions would be reserved for cousins.As for the religious feelings of the Sunni: Religious feelings were unseemly. To keep the nation on aneven keel, the mosques would be visited, that is to say, spied upon, by believers in the state. These wouldbe Alawis, naturally. Their job would be to dress and bow and utter normal Islamic prayers, while keepingnotes on those who uttered theirs too fervently.As for the mosque preachers: Those who deviated from the pray-five-times-a-day, stay-away-from-politics, wait-for-heaven variety of Sunni Islam would no longer preach. If they went nicely, they could gohome. If not, there were other methods.As for Muslims who refused to behave as citizens in the kingdom of the Assads ought to behave: In 1980and 1981, rumors of strengthening religious feeling in the northern cities of Jisr as Shugour and Hamafiltered into Damascus. Rifaat Al Assad, Hafez’s brother, then the chief of the security apparatus, leveledthese towns. The result was perhaps 10,000 dead, perhaps 40,000. No one knows. More recently, theRepublican Guard of Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, has had to enforce Hafez’s truce with the Sunnimajority with great strictness. Sunni women have been shot through facial veils and left to die among bagsof leaking trash. Sunni boys in the custody of the police have been tortured to death, their faces beaten,their genitals removed. When the bodies of dead demonstrators have been returned to their parents, so
  9. 9. neighbors tell me, the police have exacted a promise: The funerals must be private. If they attractdemonstrations—and hullabaloo and chanting for god—more people might be shot in the face.The dark force in Syria is not the Alawi religion. It’s not exactly the cult of Hafez Al Assad, either. Only theaged and the infirm refuse to acknowledge his death. But love for the sacred sanctuary he invented, theone protected by the blue-eyed family of pilots and horsemen, has not died. The dark force in Syria isexcessive belief in this realm of unreality. All those people who served in its police force, killed on itsbehalf, and kept the silence while the killing was going on carry its banner. This species of belief is a non-denominational phenomenon. It is enforced by the Alawis but Sunnis—and Kurds and Christians—aremost welcome. For the time being, it is holding fast.SINCE THE BEGINNING OF the uprising in Syria, the protestors have faced a dilemma: How is it possibleto void an agreement one makes with the Assads? Much of the power of this agreement derives from thefact that it was never written down but rather exists only in the mind. It is also powerful because it insiststhat it never be spoken about. “Your eyes on the ground!” is a phrase every Syrian learns as a toddler.It’s not so easy to repudiate what you can only feel. Also, the pact has been in operation for 40 years.Most of the demonstrators in the streets have never lived under any other dispensation. It’s not so easy toinsist that the government give way to an alternate reality one has heard about from friends who went onan exchange program to Paris.Perhaps the first step in overturning one’s parents’ agreements is to stop revering them so much. One ofthe most rapidly spreading demonstration chants has been a simple expression of collective self-confidence. “No more fear, no more fear,” the crowds call out after their prayers, “after today, no morefear!” More recently, the demonstrators have been giving voice to the indignation that Muslims ought tofeel (do feel) in the presence of a personality cult. No, they refuse to worship Assad, they say in thischant: “Heyyy yallah! We only bow to Allah.” It has now been made into a pop song.It was probably inevitable that the protestors would one day come to the heart of the matter. Everyoneknows that the chief architect of life today in Syria is not the current president, but rather a spirit, elevenyears dead, whose body now lies in a picturesque Alawi village along Syria’s coast. How to get at thisthing? The latest popular song to sweep the world of the demonstrators has them sending a thousandcongratulations to the revolutionaries of Libya, then promising Bashar that his turn is next, and then raisingtheir voices into an emotion-filled crescendo: “Ohhh, oh Hafez!” they sing. “Ohhh Hafez, god curse yoursoul! Ohhh Hafez, god curse your soul!”
  10. 10. ONE OF ASSAD’S MOST astute opponents is the cartoonist Ali Ferzat, whose gallery at the Square of theSeven Seas in Damascus is still, somehow, open for business. In late August, he was involved in aconfrontation with unknown parties in which his hands were broken, his face beaten, and he himselfdeposited on the airport highway, outside of Damascus. This is a cartoonist who knows how to get underthe skin of the regime.Almost always he depicts Bashar A Assad as a tiny man, lost within a giant military uniform. Earlier in thesummer, Ferzat had this non-entity staring into the workings of a vast and shadowy padlock. In thecartoon, the president has the key in his hand, but it’s enormous and he’s too diminutive a personage todo anything with it. He is rather on the verge of being swallowed up by the darkness (a metaphor for theelite military units? for the last four decades of life in Syria? for the Assad family’s history?).Perhaps someone with a stronger sense of personal identity could resist, but Bashar is the child of a manwho vitiated the religious and personal identity of an entire nation. It’s probably safe to assume that Hafezdid a number on his own kids.If Bashar Al Assad is going to survive the current unrest he will need, in the first place, new mediaadvisors. On Sunday, August 21, as Libyan revolutionaries were pouring into Tripoli, they put him in aliving room with two interviewers from state TV. The quietness of the setting brought out his lisp, his too-small chair brought out his school-boy awkwardness, and the subservience of the interviewers somehowencouraged his habit of trying too hard to be the self-composed sovereign, the cause of all causes inSyria. Let no one assume that I was not born to lead in a time of crisis, he tried to say with his demeanorof ultra-calm self-confidence.Early in the interview, he spoke of Syria’s geographical “position,” by which he meant its proximity toIsrael. If NATO were to attack Syria, he would bring out Syria’s weaponry, “some of which they [NATO]don’t know about,” and this would produce a “result” which they (the West? Israel? who?) could not bear.His tone of voice was soft, almost sleepy. He was invoking a potential apocalypse. Did he have any notionof what he was suggesting? It seemed he hadn’t given much thought to the issue.Performances like this tend to remind audiences in Syria of what Bashar Al Assad wanted to be when hehad the choice: There was an ophthalmologist’s career in London in the offing, a pretty English wife, anda string of healthy Anglophone children.
  11. 11. The balance of the interview couldn’t have been good for Assad’s career. For five months now, the elitemilitary units have been fanning out across Syria, roaming the countryside, entering cities at will, killing theinhabitants, and, by the way, filming themselves doing so. Ten thousand of the most unspeakable videoson YouTube accuse him, as do Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, and King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia(who never accuses anyone). The people he most needs to speak with, the demonstrators, no longer haveany interest in talking to him. Their latest chant: “Not a word! No discussion! Get away from us, oBashar!”“We are at a transitional stage,” said the president in his interview. He spoke for 45 minutes about thereviews he planned for the constitution. Would Article 8 be reviewed on its own or would the review of thisplank, which ensures single party rule, be part of a more comprehensive review?He hadn’t decided. He had, however, committed to “a path of political reform” from “the first weeks of thedemonstrations.” As the chief politician, he was leading the nation along this path. Yes, there were armedgangs who were trying to assert their own agenda. He had delegated the task of dealing with them, hesaid, to the appropriate institutions. “The political solution,” he repeated several times, “is the only one forSyria.”As the president spoke, the interviewers didn’t bat an eye, but everyone in Syria knows that the snipers onthe rooftops are themselves the political solution. Their commanders decide which cities to attack; theythemselves decide who lives and who dies. The more they shoot, the more they drive Syria into theabyss.If the president had been willing to speak about the doings of these troops—which mosque will theysurround tomorrow? which cities will they attack?—the larger public in Syria might have watched thisinterview. But as everyone there knows, the institutions to which the president referred are not quite hisown. They operate under the control of the president’s younger brother, Maher, and a coterie of ultra-loyalgenerals who have served the Assad family since the current president was a child. The president controlspolitics; these people control the nation.By discoursing on constitutional reviews and committee processes, the president made it seem as thoughhe didn’t understand that these have no relevance any longer. By refusing to acknowledge the power thesnipers exercise over the nation, he made it seem as though he didn’t care or didn’t know what washappening in the streets.
  12. 12. The truth is that in each of Bashar Al Assad’s four public appearances since the beginning of the uprisingin March, he has exhibited exactly this cluelessness. By now, the public has accepted it. The presidentinhabits another planet. Who cares?A nation teetering on the edge of civil war does not need or want a weakened, irrelevant president. Maherand the generals of 40 years tenure surely know this. When Assad falters on national TV, the countrylooks leaderless. When it looks leaderless, the demonstrators are encouraged. This prompts Maher andthe generals to grasp after greater control of the cities. When they grasp, the president must appear on TVto say that it is he, after all, who stands at the head of the political system. The more he makes irrelevantpoints like this, the more the country’s confidence in him deteriorates. This isn’t just a media advisorproblem. There is something of the death spiral in the current scenario. Maher awaits.ALMOST EVERYONE IN SYRIA believes that Bashar Al Assad has an escape plan. One of the funniervideos now circulating on YouTube uses the trick of combining footage from the German film DerUntergang with Arabic subtitles. On the German soundtrack in the film, Hitler, living through his final hoursin his bunker, is berating his generals. The Arabic subtitles in the clip have him saying: “None of youdonkeys matters at all! The important thing is that no one be permitted to upload any videos ontoYouTube! No pictures, either!” And so on.The joke isn’t that Assad has come unwound, as Hitler has in the movie. No one in Syria thinks that heobsesses over troop movements in his concrete bunker. People do think, however, that he no longercontrols the streets, that he rambles to no apparent end, as Hitler does in the movie, and that his world hisclosing in on him. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Syrians are beginning to wonder: Howwill the drama end?The clip-satire suggests a happy denouement. As shells shake the bunker, the camera cuts to a prettysecretary, listening at the office door, who bears a vague resemblance to Assad’s wife, Asma. She iswhispering to a friend. “Don’t worry,” say the Arabic subtitles. “We are UK nationals. When this is over,we’ll escape to Britain.”Many Syrians believe that Asma has already retreated to London. The peaceful way to resolve the troublein Syria would involve Bashar taking the cue, giving up, and going home to his family. I have come to thispoint in the discussion several times in Damascus, sitting around a shisha pipe in a café. Whenever wearrive here, the shisha sippers tell me that even if the president admits such fantasies into his private
  13. 13. thoughts, neither Maher, nor the elderly generals, nor the wider community of Alawis will allow him to livethem out. In this sense, he is alone and trapped. “God should have mercy on his soul,” say the shishasippers.Theo Padnos is the author of the forthcoming book Undercover Muslim.