Bashar Assad, president of Syria, is the strong silent type. So when the young leader of one of the most diabolical of all Arab nations consents to an interview in a foreign Arabic newspaper, I pay attention.
The dictator of Syria just granted an interview to al Jazira, the largest Saudi newspaper - not to be confused with al Jazeera the TV station and website which broadcasts from Qatar. In the course of his interview Assad offered his impressions and lent his interpretation on a variety of hot topics including maneuverings within the region, the potential for peace between his nation and Israel and his take on the United States of America.
If this interview is to be believed, I would have to say that the man is a pessimist. Assad had no positive anything to say at all about anybody. But that's just the point. Assad was giving a personal interview, but there was nothing personal about it. He was not speaking from his heart, he was speaking to the hearts of everyone who cares about what the ruler of Syria has to say.
An interview with Bashar Assad is not really about his true assessment. An interview with Bashar Assad is about what he wants people to believe. Dictators like Assad and his father before him use the media to create smoke and mirrors, to create illusions, to provide a safety net. And dictators like Assad use the media to confound and confuse us.
The best and most convincing way to tell an untruth is to include some truth in the story. The more longwinded the plea, the less I am convinced of the sincerity of the pleader. So, too, with Arab leaders who grant interviews to foreign media outlets.
On the subject of Israel Assad's little bit of truth was his confirmation that over the past few months there have been a series of European, Arab and even American intermediaries who have tried to work their own magic at brokering an exchange of ideas between Syria and Israel - a move which is still many giant steps away from the ultimate goal of bringing the Syrians and Israelis to a negotiating table.
He called the intermediaries "informal contacts." He said, "[s]enior personalities came to Syria, Americans and Europeans. Maybe they were Arabs who live in the West and hold dual citizenship. We cannot tell who is an Arab and who is a foreigner in any case, these personalities came to us and said that it is necessary to move the peace process between us and Israel forward." He added, and this is important, "These delegations heard our opinions and passed them on to Israel, while other people went to Israel and then came to Syria with Israeli opinions."
From there Assad went on to proclaim that "the current government in Israel is the weakest in Israel's history" and that he expects no change on the negotiation front for at least two years. Well, that part was not only a lie - excuse me, an untruth, but also a dangerous statement to make.
Israel is not at its weakest point in history. If Israel were at its weakest point in history Syria would be on the attack. If Assad really considered Israel to be weak he would be taking back the Golan Heights that his father lost in an embarrassing defeat to Israel in 1967, right now. But he isn't. Because it's not.
Israel's militarily preparedness is on the rise. Assad is confusing popular political support with military prowess, confusing vox populi with military readiness and capability in order to make his point. He wants to present a powerless Israel to the public even though he knows that the opposite is true. He wants to rally the Arab world. If Israel is weak the Arab world is strong. By presenting an Israel that is faltering Assad is waving the banner of an Arab world that is strong, steadfast and secure. Smoke and mirrors.
In some way, despite his determination to create illusions, Assad cannot be faulted for this deception. How can a dictator be expected to understand the workings of a democracy? No doubt popular support for Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has fallen, but his position within the Knesset is still very strong and I do not foresee new elections until at least October or November and maybe not even then. And even if there were to be a democratic shift and change in leadership in Israel it would not signal weakness. Because Israel is not a dictatorship but a democracy dissent and public debate are part of the process. And because Israel is a democracy the military does not shift with each change of government.
Assad's statement suggesting that there are no changes on the negotiation front is another of his smoke and mirrors ploys. The very fact that there have been multiple envoys and mediators going back and forth and back again between Israel and Syria over the past few months - which he so readily admits - is in and of itself an indicator of progress. And Assad actually said he is sending his "opinions" to Israel. His opinions, that's big news.
And the Syrian expatriate whom Assad so casually refers to by saying that maybe there are Arabs who live in the West and hold dual citizenship but it is difficult to tell who is an Arab and who is a foreigner, is a very successful American named Suliemen doing a very heroic balancing act. Suliemen has met with Israel's former Foreign Ministry director general Dr. Alon Liel and has just completed a visit to Israel where he was a guest in the Knesset.
Things are happening, dialogue is underway, not-so-secret mediators shuttling between the countries and clandestine meetings will continue. The ultimate objective may be peace but first and most important are the channels of communication. Syria and Israel have no other alternative than to ultimately talk to each other. They share a water system and they share a border. Israel knows that, Assad knows that.
The Middle East is a volatile region. It is an area where rhetoric reigns. As long as the players recognize the truth in untruths a balance is maintained. Unfortunately, that seesaw balance sometimes shifts. And smoke dissipates. And mirrors crack.
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