‘Monster of Syria’ Assad shows his human face
As violence in Syria worsens and Western leaders talk of arming the rebels, President Assad has given a rare interview to The Sunday Times. The murderous dictator is a surprisingly mild man.
With his neatly cropped hair, plain, black suit and smart, sober tie, the man would not look out of place in the offices of a bank. His manner is measured and respectful and he greets the interviewer’s questions with articulate and outwardly reasonable replies.
‘We cannot agree to engage in dialogue with terrorists,’ he said in an interview published yesterday in The Sunday Times. ‘How can anybody be safe... when their country is in danger?’ As for his verdict on the David Cameron’s UK government: ‘naive, confused, unrealistic.’
Harsh words – but words, nevertheless, that could easily have come from the mouth of a respectable politician. Yet Bashar al Assad is nothing of the sort: as the authoritarian leader of troubled Syria, this mild-mannered man has been the architect of some of the most merciless massacres in recent times.
When Assad succeeded his father as President of Syria, he quickly established himself as the nation’s supreme ruler. For a decade this dictatorship encountered little opposition. Then, in 2011, the Middle East erupted in a succession of popular revolts known as the ‘Arab Spring’.
One by one, the uprising toppled tyrants from Tunisia to Yemen. But Assad refused to step aside. Instead, he embarked on a brutal crackdown. Democracy activists and dissidents were arrested and protesters were met with extreme violence; reports soon surfaced of bullets fired into unarmed crowds.
When the uprising grew, Assad ordered the army to lay siege to rebel towns. Whole districts were deprived of water and medicine, and shells rained down indiscriminately on houses, hospitals and schools. Captured rebels were executed en masse.
The United Nations estimates that the Syrian Civil War has claimed 70,000 lives. Almost a million have been forced from their homes. It is among the worst humanitarian crises in the world today.
Yet this interview, Assad’s first in a Western news site for over a year, suggests that behind all this horror is an ordinary and inoffensive man.
The banality of evil
It just goes to show, say some, that monsters can hide behind the most unremarkable facades. Not all criminals are cruel sadists and evil ideologues; many look and talk just like decent, reasonable people. You can never tell where evil may be lurking.
But others reach a conclusion that is more disturbing still. The reason Assad seems like an ordinary man, they say, is because he is one: the only difference between him and us is that he has the power to commit his terrible crimes. Given similar circumstances, pressures and opportunities, anybody is capable of unforgivable acts. Inside every decent human, they say, a demon lurks.
- Is there any such thing as an essentially evil person?
- Not everybody would agree with Assad’s description of his opponents as ‘terrorists’.
- Nevertheless, do you agree with him that it is wrong to ‘engage in a dialogue’ with such an enemy?
- Imagine you have been invited to interview Bashar al Assad. Write down the five questions that you would most want to ask him.
- Write a short profile of a historical villain. Are their personal qualities or the circumstances in which they found themselves more to blame for their sins?
Some People Say...
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.’ Hannah Arendt”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Are you saying that I could be a mass murderer?
- I hope not. But there have been some shocking psychological studies which suggest that many people are capable of surprising cruelty. In the Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, ordinary students were randomly assigned the role of either a prisoner or a guard. Within days, the guards were behaving so abusively that the experiment had to be called off.
- Is there anything we can do about the situation in Syria?
- There have been calls for the West to arm Syrian rebels for well over a year now, and Western leaders are taking the idea increasingly seriously. It is possible that Europe and America could soon be involved in a Syrian military campaign. If you personally want to help, think about donating money to the UN’s charitable appeal.
- Among Assad’s internal enemies are Islamic fundamentalists who wish to see Syria governed by strict Sharia law. Assad has used this fact to portray the Syrian rebels as ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’; in reality, the opposition is made up of many diverse groups with competing aims and ideologies.
- Tunisia to Yemen
- Since early 2011, when the Arab Spring began, four autocratic leaders have been removed from power in the Middle East: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh in Yemen and Gaddafi in Libya.
- Forced from their homes
- The Syrian Civil War has created a regional refugee crisis, as families flee from the violence that plagues their villages and flood over Syria’s borders into Turkey and Jordan. There are concerns that this crisis is also harming the stability of Eastern Turkey, where Kurdish resistance fighters are engaged in a long-running struggle for independence.