French magazine Paris Match, best known for celebrity and style coverage, interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on November 28. They've just published the first excerpts — and they're very revealing. In one especially eyebrow-raising moment, Assad seems to suggest that the problem with President Obama's Syria strategy is that the US isn't bombing Assad's country hard enough.
Here are the three most important quotes — and why they matter.
1) Assad straight-up taunts Obama
Paris Match asked Assad whether he believes, as many Syrian rebels argue, that Obama's airstrikes against ISIS and al-Qaeda are helping the Syrian leader hold on to power. Here's what he said:
You can't end terrorism with aerial strikes. Troops on the ground that know the land and can react are essential. That is why there haven't been any tangible results in the two months of strikes led by the coalition. It isn't true that the strikes are helpful. They would of course have helped had they been serious and efficient. We are running the ground battles against [ISIS], and we have noticed no change, especially with Turkey providing direct support to these regions.
In the first half of this quote, where Assad says that the US airstrikes can't succeed without credible ground allies, he sounds a hell of a lot like John McCain, or other hawkish American critics of Obama's Syria policy. Like American hawks, Assad is suggesting that Obama's strategy is guaranteed to fail unless he steps up the ground war.
Unlike American hawks, though, Assad doesn't seem to want American troops to do the dirty work in Syria: he's unmistakably calling for the US to develop a more "serious and efficient" campaign by working with his Syrian army. When he says "we are running the ground battle against [ISIS]," and talks about troops that "know the land," he's clearly calling for a stepped-up US air campaign that supports the Syrian army.
There's a lot of bullshit in here. Assad has often turned a blind eye to ISIS's growth, tacitly allowing it to rise, knowing that the group's growth would make it harder for the West to intervene against him. And his troops often fail when they actually do fight ISIS. But Assad is clearly excited by the possibility of teaming up with America.
2) Assad appeals directly to other American allies for help
America isn't the only Western power Assad is trying to cozy up to. When Paris Match asked him if he'd be open to reestablishing ties with French President Francois Hollande, who isn't Assad's biggest fan, the Syrian President basically said "hell yeah:"
We will work with any French dignitary or government in our common interests...I am neither a personal enemy or rival of Hollande. I think that [ISIS] is his rival, their popularity is very much the same.
That last jab about Hollande's 12 percent approval rating aside, Assad is saying he'd welcome greater French intervention against ISIS — provided, of course, it was coordinated with his government. This interview is a full-court press for a tactical alliance between Assad and the West.
3) Assad is somehow still trying to sell himself as an opponent of Western imperialism
Yet, despite all this, Assad casts himself as an opponent of Western imperialism. After being asked whether he was afraid of ending up like Saddam Hussein or Moammer Qaddafi, both of whom were killed by their own people after Western interventions, Assad gave his most ridiculous answer of the interview:
The captain doesn't think about death, or life, he thinks about saving his ship. If he thinks about sinking, everyone will die. I am doing my best to save the country...My goal has never been to remain President, neither before, during, or after the crisis. Regardless what happens, we as Syrians will never allow our country to become a toy in Western hands.
If by "saving his country," he means gunning down peaceful protestors in the street until they're forced to take up arms and begin a brutal civil war, then he's doing a bang-up job. It's also pretty rich that, in an interview where he practically begs for Western help, he's casting himself as a staunch opponent of Western involvement in the Middle East.
If I had to guess, I'd say that this has to do with his relationship with Iran. The Iranians see the Syrian regime, which they've spent enormous amounts of resources to preserve, as a key part of their "resistance" alliance against Israel and the United States. Assad can cozy up to the West on ISIS, but he can't do it at the expense of Iranian support.