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Why Assad Won’t Back Down

January 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In a defiant public speech Tuesday, Syrian President Assad repeated promises of reform and plans to crush dissent against his regime. Margaret Warner discusses what's next for Syria with former U.S. Ambassador Theodore Kattouf and Andrew Tabler, a Washington Institute fellow who lived in Syria for most of the last decade.
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GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on President Assad’s defiant speech and his fight to maintain his regime, we turn to two men who have met and dealt with him.

Theodore Kattouf was U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003 in the early years of Bashar Assad’s rule. And Andrew Tabler, now a fellow at the Washington Institute, lived in Syria for most of the last decade and covered Assad for an English-language magazine he founded there.

And welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Let me begin with you, Andrew Tabler.

This speech was actually 100 minutes long. Was it as defiant, looked as in its entirety, as it sounds?

ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Yes.

And it continues a pattern of defiant speeches from President Assad. He outright says that you must battle terrorism, which is what he calls the uprising in Syria, it must be dealt with, with an iron fist, and that victory is near.

And this is very bombastic language and something that — in a speech that we did not expect. We expected some sort of concessions from Assad. And he didn’t deliver.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you make, Ambassador Kattouf, of “Victory is near”? Do you think he believes that? Well, what does this say about psychology? You’ve met and dealt with him.

THEODORE KATTOUF, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria: He may well believe it, although he has to be a bit shaken by how long this has gone on, given the level of brutality his people have used against the demonstrators.

But he gained a lot of confidence over the years because he was convinced that the Bush administration was gunning for his regime after we went into Iraq. And he was, of course, allowing infiltration to go on into Iraq.

And, you know, when George Bush left office, he looked around and he said: I’m still here, and he’s gone. I must be pretty smart.

And he became really quite full of himself. He went from being a fellow who was a bit on the self-effacing side to being a fellow who was quite, quite full of himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Because remind us, he had been an ophthalmologist in London. He wasn’t even necessarily supposed to be his father’s heir. And then, suddenly, he’s thrust into this job.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: How does the man you’re seeing — we’re seeing now compare to the man you covered in the last decade, which was the first decade of his rule? He came in, in 2000.

ANDREW TABLER: It’s interesting, what the ambassador was saying.

It follows a pattern as well. Bashar on the surface seems like a very nice, affable person, speaks very good English, is much different than his father, Hafez al-Assad, seems much more reasonable. But the problem is, when you leave the room from President Assad, the things that he promised to do, either it doesn’t happen or he does completely the opposite.

And this gives him a sort of mad character that really not only confounds his own people, but confounded Western diplomacy with him extensively and made him very, very different than his father, who was able to sort of play off all sides against each other and ultimately maintain order in the country.

MARGARET WARNER: And actually would deliver when he made…

ANDREW TABLER: Correct, very different.

MARGARET WARNER: What about his family, Ambassador, Mr. Ambassador? One, who does he talk to? Who is he surrounded with, and what is their mind-set?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, we can’t be 100 percent sure.

But he — I know for a fact that he has convened, even years ago, large family gatherings, in which the family business, as we say, would be discussed. There have been reports that his mother, of all people, who — you know, the widow of Hafez al-Assad — has told him, you know, that he has to stay strong, he has to protect the family, the community, meaning the Alawite community, the regime and his father’s legacy.

And never underrate the importance of Arab mothers with their sons.

(LAUGHTER)

MARGARET WARNER: But when he came in, people thought he was reform-minded. He had lived in the West. He had lived in London. What happened? Or did people just read into him, Westerners read into him what they wanted to read?

THEODORE KATTOUF: I think it’s a little — I think, to some extent, he might have thought: I can make some cosmetic reforms. I can lighten the image of the regime. I can open things up a bit.

But very much like in “The Godfather,” where Michael Corleone may have in the beginning some idea that he can take the family in a different direction, take them out to Las Vegas, start legitimate businesses, he found out that the system only operates one way: with a strong, ruthless SOB at the top. And that would be him.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Andrew, where does this leave the Arab League mission? As we heard, he totally trashed the Arab League in his speech.

ANDREW TABLER: Yes.

And I think what’s very interesting is, is that he basically called it non-objective. He talked — referred to some Arab countries, which he means here Qatar.

There’s no way that the report, which is going to be issued on Jan. 19…

MARGARET WARNER: And this is, just to explain, the observer mission that went to see if he was living up to this deal that he struck…

ANDREW TABLER: The observer mission.

Right. He already wasn’t living up to the deal. He realized, I think, that he’s not going to be able to live up to the deal. But, most importantly, what this is going to do then is that this is going to throw things perhaps out of the Arab League and into the Security Council.

And the question will be, what will a negative report on Syria not complying do with the Russian veto in the Security Council in terms of blocking a Western-led resolution there to help try and end the fighting?

MARGARET WARNER: But how clear is it that the Arab League report will be negative? Because some of the statements that have come out from them as they have continued this mission have — seem to strike — you know, criticize both sides and so forth?

THEODORE KATTOUF: I think, after today’s speech, there’s a very good probability it is going to be a very tough report.

He stood up there before the world and insulted the Saudi leaders, all the Gulf Cooperation Council leaders, basically said, they don’t have authentic culture. In other words, we Syrians have — they’re not really Arabs. Without us, there is no Arab League. They’re the foreign league. They’re part of a mass conspiracy.

You know, he’s done just about everything he can think of to ensure that he’s turned these people against him, and also raises the question that, if he wants to go in exile, who will take him?

MARGARET WARNER: So he seems so confident, as he said, Andrew Tabler, that the iron fist is going to prevail here. By that, he must mean his own military and intelligence services, correct?

ANDREW TABLER: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Does he still have pretty much unquestioned loyalty from them?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, no. You have had a lot of defections from the lower…

MARGARET WARNER: Some defections in the military.

ANDREW TABLER: But, by and large, he still commands the authority of the military. And under the Syrian constitution, he directs them. So, by and large, I think he believes that.

But the problem that Assad has is that this — you know, for this to go on, as the ambassador has said, for 10 months is — is just so troubling to the regime at its core. And, basically, also to say that the iron fist…

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean troubling to the regime?

ANDREW TABLER: Well, they always had a very high bar for order in Syria. More than three people gathering on the street was technically illegal and could be broken up.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

ANDREW TABLER: Now you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people sometimes protesting.

So he’s in a real dilemma. The question is, why is it that he keeps on advocating the iron fist with some superficial reforms, and thinking that that’s going to get him out of something? He’s been doing that for 10 months. It hasn’t worked. Why does he continue to think it’s going to work now? And that’s the question.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, very briefly, then, today, he did say, well, we’re going to have a new constitution and a referendum the first week of March. Is that just window dressing, or is there a prospect that he might take some steps that would actually…

THEODORE KATTOUF: It’s window dressing.

This man has not killed people for the last 10 months to peacefully transfer power to the opposition. It’s totally window dressing. And the young man who was on your setup for this interview said he really didn’t see how the opposition could win without foreign intervention. And, sorry to say, I’m not sure I see how the opposition can win. I can see the country descending into chaos and civil war.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is the ultimate nightmare.

Well, Andrew Tabler and Ambassador Theodore Kattouf, thank you.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Thank you.