Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.
“Mr. President, I would like to ask you about your future vision of Syria.” President Assad looked at me, nodding his head for me to continue. “It seems that the institutions of Syria have been so damaged and the social fabric of the country pulled apart in so many ways that I wonder if it is possible to reconstitute Syria in the way that it existed before the war. I was wondering if you could talk about the reconstruction of Syria and the reintegration of these rebel-held areas?”
Sitting in the presidential palace in Damascus with five other journalists and researchers, I was fortunate enough to be able to pose a few questions to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Much has been written about the Syrian conflict, but little news or information has come out about any post-conflict planning after ISIS and other jihadi groups are defeated. This seems to be a worrying development, particularly on the part of American policy experts, as much like Iraq in 2003, we have little idea as to what is supposed to come next. I jumped at the opportunity to ask President Assad directly.
“You would be surprised if I tell you that this fabric you talk about is actually much better than before the war,” President Assad answered. “This is surprising for me because everything they say, how you say, in everything there is a silver lining. In this silver lining you learn a lesson. Society has learned by de facto because we had a lot of extremism and fanaticism that was spreading in society in different ways. It is part of the perception of society that it couldn’t stop before the war came and it opened the mind.”
“I would say it should not go back as it was before, it should be better,” Assad said in reference to the Syrian government. “Because you had many flaws regarding this issue, because we have been influenced by the Wahhabis for the last 40 years. Of course there was also tolerance and all these good things, that’s true. But the Wahhabi influenced our moderate part of society, becoming day by day more fanatic. That is what we have gotten rid of in the crisis. The whole society was moving right by fanatics; now the society is moving left. The middle was becoming more conservative; the conservative became fanatics. The fanatics became extremists and extremists became terrorists. Now the whole society is without the incubator. Without the incubator you will not have Syrian extremists so you had this before the war but not during the war.
“The incubator was the society because when you talk about terrorists you do not generate that inside a computer, it is not a video game. You generate it in a family, in a neighborhood, in a school. Now in the West they concentrating more on the mosque. Actually, 80 percent of the recruitment happens on the internet. Now the incubator is social media because most of the people, they make dialog with one every hour, let’s say on social media apps. This is the incubator.”
President Assad’s technological metaphors in regards to politics and social matters relates back to his interest in computers. As president, he played a big part in bringing the internet and 5G to Syria, which ironically became the double-edged sword that helped create the jihadi incubator he speaks of in Syria. A self-described “computer nerd,” he commented after the interview that he does not like video games but has an RSS feed that keeps him updated on new gadgets, and he also discusses new medical devices with his friends, although he no longer has the time to practice medicine himself.
One of the think tank members jumped in at that point and commented that the government may have inadvertently empowered the Islamists in Syria by cracking down on them as far back as the 1980s, often using draconian measures.
“Let’s say yes or no, it depends on how you look at it. This is a very complicated process because it is about the natural development of the society in a good direction or bad direction. Do you want to make a more Islamic or more secular government? We would not make Islamization because Syria is more diverse and the history of our society is moderate for 1,400 years. It was a Christian area, then the Muslims came, and then before the Ottoman [Empire] and after the Ottoman…so this is natural, not forced. The secular government came out of independence…we were under the influence of the Wahhabis, and they became stronger and stronger because of their money.
“The Syrians who went to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, they came back with these very radical traditions. Because Islamization is not really about the Qur’an and interpretation of the Qur’an, it is about lifestyle. This is something you cannot stop as a government. You can do something you are not passive. It is about education and the media. In some areas we were successful to a certain extent, and in some areas we were not.
“In some areas it is because of the desperation of my generation, the previous one, and the coming one, because the secular government couldn’t bring peace. Not because we couldn’t but the circumstances did not bring peace. So the secular state failed, so the solution is Islam. The people shifted toward that…in many areas you cannot stop that even if you are aware of it because it was moving very fast, and my solution when I talk about education and media and culture, these are mid- and long-term solutions. But they are working on the short term. Putting [on] veils, accusing the government that it is against Islam so the people become very passionate.
“Because the government is atheist, secular means atheist in their mind, and this is not true. Secular means freedom of religion. Freedom of thinking, of rituals, and so on. I am Muslim, I believe in God, but I’m not a fanatic. I respect Christians. They have the right to live like any other Syrian and be a full citizen in every sense of this word. But this is one thing, and Islamization in the political sense of the word is completely against it.
“Syria developed in a better way so we can move with the society to deal with this manifestation that we could not before the crisis. The perception of the society has changed and that helped us moving in a methodical way. It is not enough just to deal with the ideology, you have to deal with it in every sector of life that affects the process of radicalization.”
“Sir, I think the interesting thing is that, right now, there is a war that binds people together,” I said. “When faced with something like ISIS, I think people will turn to government almost certainly. I was wondering if you had any ideas for after the war, how you would restructure the Syrian system of governance?”
“You cannot separate the structure and the society from restructuring the whole system that you live in whether you talk about politics, administration, or religion. You know, when you buy a smartphone or any computer, the most important thing you look for is not the processor these days. You look for the operating system. The operating system of our region is religion, whether we like it or not. For everything in our life, even for me as president, before making a decision regarding certain laws related to the daily life of the people—except the economy of course…even the economy, but mainly the civil society rights—we go back to the religion and the imams. This is our political system.
“If we don’t repair that part, we cannot deal with the other part. So with reconstruction, we started planning for that for another area that has been destroyed by the war in a modern way. That is good: Reconstruction is good economy after the war. And we started; we are not going to wait until after the war. But the most important challenge is how you can protect your country in the future. You have to reconstruct the society.
“Second, what system, what hierarchy, in the government can make every Syrian citizen feel that they can share? He belongs to this state, this institution. This is another challenge because, with Islamization, I don’t believe in anyone who doesn’t look like me, behave like me, or doesn’t think like me,” Assad said rhetorically from the Islamist point of view. “So for me as a Muslim, the Muslim in Malaysia is much closer to me than a Christian in Syria. So I don’t recognize the political border.”
“So you are saying this is about constructing a new type of Syrian identity?” I asked.
“Exactly. What is happening in the Middle East is a struggle of identity, so you are correct. It is a struggle of identity. So for example, am I Arabic or Muslim? No, I’m Muslim, no you’re Arabic. Am I Kurdish or Muslim? Am I Baathist or Kurdish or Muslim? Or Christian or Jewish? This division doesn’t exist because you can be American, or Muslim American, or be a Kurdish Muslim American, is that correct? So that is why we believe is a secular country. This is the type of restructuring that we have to do. This is one of the main problems we have to deal with in the Middle East, mainly in Syria.”
“Is religion the operating system in Syria?” a journalist from the New York Times asked.
“In the Muslim world. This is not a negative thing, I’m not putting it as a bad thing as long as you have a good interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. If you have a bad interpretation, then this operating system will be a corrupt operating system.”
President Assad’s answers seemed genuine and sincere, but I could not shake the feeling that perhaps he is underestimating the amount of trauma his country has been through—trauma that may not even fully show itself until years after the conclusion of the war. Whatever Syria was in 2010, war has ripped it apart. Assad understands this, but may not fully comprehend how difficult it will be to put the pieces back together even if they fit into each other in different ways than before the war.
The Syrian government has been challenged by various rebel factions, almost all of them Islamists who believe in some form of sharia law. Misunderstanding the grievances of the Syrian people that led to the conflict could lead the government toward making the same mistakes. Radical reforms in 2011 probably could have de-escalated the entire conflict before it erupted into outright chaos, but that time has come and gone.
In the next segment, we will further examine this question and discuss the “conspiracy against Syria” versus the internal problems facing the country.