“If you are in the middle of a war, you are the chief of staff of the whole government and army, you don’t flee,” President Bashar al-Assad said in regards to the possibility of him stepping down and leaving his post. “If you are the captain of the ship, when you have a storm, you don’t jump in the water, you lead it to the shore, then you say ‘now I can leave.’ If you have the passengers with you, leaving the ship, you will be the last one. I think that is self-evident.”
President Assad has held office since 2000, taking the reins of power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who became president in 1971. He was re-elected in 2007 in an election that featured no members from opposition parties. In 2014, Assad was again voted into office in an election that, for the first time, pitted him against an opposition candidate named Hassan al-Nouri. Assad was elected to another seven-year term, securing 88 percent of the votes while al-Nouri received just over four percent. The elections were denounced as a farce by Western leaders, in part because large swaths of the country could not vote due to the ongoing civil war, with civilians trapped in rebel-held areas.
At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry commented that, “With respect to the elections that took place, the so-called elections, the elections are non-elections, the elections are a great big zero. They are meaningless, and they are meaningless because you can’t have an election where millions of your people don’t even have the ability to vote, where they don’t have the ability to contest the election, and they have no choice.” The European Union echoed Kerry’s sentiments, declaring the election to be illegitimate.
The 2014 election, and Assad’s recent comments made during an interview with Western journalists in which SOFREP participated, occurred against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War in which Western powers have persistently called for the toppling of the Assad government. “The president is the headline of the problem,” Assad said, reflecting on how he feels Western leaders see him. “The president is the headline of the book and they have to get rid of the headline to deal with the chapters.” Earlier in the interview he had commented that he does not think his government meets the criteria desired by the West, which is why they want him removed.
Whether or not forced regime change by external powers is legal or appropriate, there have also been specific issues and grievances raised about Assad’s government ranging from support for terrorist organizations in years past, rigged elections, and human-rights abuses during the war.
At the end of his current term, Assad said that he will have to look at the situation at that time and determine whether he still wants to continue as president. “As president, if I feel the Syrian people are against me [I would step down] for a simple reason: Without public support, you cannot achieve. You cannot succeed.” He pointed out that, from his point of view, he could never lead the country in a time of war without popular support. “If I don’t have public support, I will step down,” he emphasized.
Maintaining broad public support in a post-war Syria will be perhaps the biggest challenge that Assad has faced during his presidency, even more so than winning the war itself. Reconstructing Syria physically and psychologically will be a generations-long undertaking.
If Assad is able to remain in power and win the war, then one thing is for sure: Among his supporters, Assad will go down in history as a Syrian war hero who faced down the entire world and won. Whether or not the political capital gained through a war-time victory will be enough to keep Assad in power after the war remains to be seen.
Featured image courtesy of Ammar Abd Rabbo/ABACAUSA.COM