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Syria: Tragicomic Performance At Damascus Opera

12 January 2013

By Amir Taheri

Since the start of the uprising in Syria in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad has responded to the challenge with three major speeches.

Each time, the venue chosen had a perhaps unintended symbolic significance.

The first venue was the ornate hall used for meetings of the Council of Ministers.

The choice indicted that the president regarded the burgeoning uprising which begun in Deraa as a largely administrative problem to be handled by the government through bureaucratic means.

Al-Assad's tone was paternalistic, not to say patronising. He saw the uprising as a minor and localised affair prompted by some people's misunderstanding of his government's beneficial policies.

Trying to triangulate, al-Assad cast himself as an arbiter between the protestors and the government. In that mode he dictated a series of meaningless measures, with ministers dutifully noting every word.

Al-Assad's failure to see the political nature of the uprising was astonishing, to say the least.

In the next speech al-Assad enlisted members of the Syrian parliament as audience. The choice of the parliament as venue indicated the beginning of an understanding that something more than administrative blips was involved. Despite thousands killed and many more driven out of their homes or imprisoned, the problem al-Assad faced was unlikely to end with bureaucratic measures and hollow promises.

Nevertheless, al-Assad still insisted that the revolt concerned a tiny minority. Though months of efforts to crush the uprising by mass killing and indiscriminate destruction had failed, al-Assad clung to the failed recipe.

Commentators had wondered where the third speech might be held. The hall of the Council of Governments no longer fit the purpose if only because Syria has ceased to have a government in the normal sense. Two changes of prime minister, the defection of a prime minister and reshuffles caused by defections and/or assassination have transformed the Council of Ministers into an empty shell. Today, to the extent that Syria could be said to have a government it consists of Bashar al-Assad and his kitchen cabinet including his wife, brother, and mother.

The parliament was also out as venue for a presidential speech.

Many members have simply vanished, some joining the opposition or seeking shelter in exile. It is not even clear if the discredited organ could conjure a quorum for a plenary session.

So, where could al-Assad make another speech? The question had prompted speculation for weeks. Since no one had seen the president in public since June, there were rumours that he had fled to his Alawite stronghold or was hiding in the mountains.

However, when revealed, the venue chosen for the latest presidential speech fit the bill perfectly.

The third speech was made in the Damascus Opera House, closed since last May when Russian musician Viktor Babenkov was billed for a recital.

Was al-Assad following Babenkov with a partition composed in Moscow?

The question is not fanciful.

Al-Assad's analysis of the dire situation in Syria included echoes of Russian propaganda. The uprising was the work of "terrorists financed, armed and manipulated by the West", al-Assad claimed. There was no point in talking to the rebels; he would rather talk to their "masters" in the West.

Some Western analysts believe that al-Assad's rejection of peaceful transition is prompted by Russia and that the key to any solution lies in Moscow. I don't believe that is the case. Russia no longer has the influence it once had as the Soviet Union.

Today, Russia is operating as an opportunist power, seeking a say in Syria's future without making a big political investment. Even if Russia abandoned al-Assad, he would not throw in the towel unless he is convinced that the game is up for him.

Al-Assad's analysis is the mirror image of the mistake made by Western analysts. He is proposing negotiations with the West, actually meaning the United States, because he wrongly believes Washington writes the score for the Syrian uprising.

However, even if Washington asked the Syrian opposition to accept al-Assad in some capacity, it is doubtful that key segments of the uprising would agree. In the same way, even if Moscow asked al-Assad to leave, it is not certain he would do so.

The crisis in Syria has fond a momentum of its own that no outside power, or combination of powers, can modulate let alone stop.

The fate of Syria is in the hands of Syrians. Outsiders could help shorten the deadly crisis by supporting the uprising in a massive way, enough to counter al-Assad's military machine.

Paradoxically, by rejecting feelers put out to him for a negotiated transition, al-Assad may have forced the Western powers into that direction.

Assad's libretto at the Opera House the other night may have had a farcical tone. But it may well lead to a tragic denouement for him.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.

 

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