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.