Assad: Western idealism and Eastern autocracy

By Merryn Johnson 

“I would be more pessimistic if I had to rewrite the last sentences,” said Christophe Ayad, co-director of Syria: Assad’s Twilight. The documentary finished where it began – with Bashar al-Assad’s brutality unleashed upon his own people, captured only on shaking mobile phones – but with a feeling of optimism that the regime’s days are numbered and its power is waning.

But things have changed since Christophe Ayad and Vincent De Cointet finished filming in June 2011. There is no longer any certainty that the Assad regime will have to go. On the same day as the UK premiere of their documentary, Kofi Annan told the UN Security Council that the Syrian government had agreed to withdraw forces from towns and cities.

The film takes us back to the beginning of the Assad regime in 1971, to Hafez’s establishment of a single-party state that ruled with an iron fist, to his longstanding conflict with Israel, and his entrenched involvement in Lebanese politics. Little changed in 2000, when Bashar came to power after his father’s death. In particular, neither man could tolerate opposition.

We see parallels between father and son in the only surviving evidence of the 1982 Hama massacre – four weeks of mass murder, rape, and torture – a series of faded photographs of destroyed buildings, looking then like the Homs district of Baba Amr does today.

After the screening, Patrick Seale, author and Middle East expert featuring in the documentary, joined Ayad on stage for the Q&A.

Ayad was asked to expand upon his pessimism. He said: “The peaceful demonstrations were totally new to the regime, but the moment the demonstrators took up weapons they entered a game that the regime knows how to play.”

Seale described the mounting layers of Syria’s problems: “Unemployment, drought, a demographic explosion and an education system and government services over-burdened . . . coupled with the mindset of Bashar – he has faced a series of external conspiracies which have threatened the regime.”

Ayad agreed, but said: “The external problems can be changed, solved, but I’m pessimistic about the regime’s capacity to reform in its approach to its own people. The regime does not consider them as citizens – they are just there to shut up. Syria has lost its people, but you can run a country without your people.”

“After 2005, Bashar felt that he had overcome something and that he didn’t have to listen anymore. Even Hafez was more political – for example, he sided with the US against Iraq during the Gulf War – but Bashar is not political. He’s a mix of Western idealism and Eastern autocracy.” – Christophe Ayad

Ayad is no longer certain that we are witnessing the Assads’ twilight because Syria has various assets that prolong its grip on power: agricultural wealth and the support of two substantial powers – Russia and Iran. It also maintains control of a strong security apparatus which, until now, has not fallen apart. But what remains of Bashar’s capacity to rule?