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President Bashar Assad: His Inner Circle And His Options


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. On Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made his first public appearance in six months. Cheering supporters filled the opera house in Damascus. Assad outlined new structural reforms in the government. He talked about a new Cabinet and a new Constitution. But he refused to negotiate with the main opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

That means it's unlikely anything will change soon in this bloody war that has lasted almost two years. Last week, the United Nations released new figures on the death toll in Syria. They now say more than 60,000 people have been killed there since fighting began almost two years ago.

This hour, we'll focus on the leader who clings to power. What do we know about Bashar al-Assad's past? Who does he surround himself with, and what are his options? In a little while, we'll hear from NPR's Deb Amos, who recently returned from Syria. She'll tell us about what life is like for people on the ground there.

But we also want to hear from you. What questions do you have about Assad and his inner circle? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, helping kids use technology in a responsible way.

But first, Syria. Former Ambassador Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council has negotiated directly with Assad. He recently left a post at the State Department as a special advisor for transition in Syria, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program.

FREDERIC HOF: Thank you, Ari, very great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Talk more about what we hear from Assad in this speech on Sunday.

HOF: I think the principal thing we heard from President Assad, and I suspect the main reason why he did this was to rally the troops. Bashar al-Assad has attempted to implicate a major part of Syria's population in the methodology he has used to try to perpetuate family rule in Syria.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?

HOF: He comes from a particular minority group in Syria.

SHAPIRO: The Alawites.

HOF: The Alawites. From the beginning of his father's regime in 1970, a key regime objective has been to try to prevent rival power centers from growing within the Alawite community. Going back to the time of the French in the early part of the 20th century, Alawites have been recruited in large numbers to the Syrian military and other security forces.

So it's an important minority group. It is a minority group that has not really benefitted in any substantial way from the rule of the Assad family. It is still the poorest group in the country. But it's important for Assad to maintain unity and to - among them, and to make sure nobody thinks that he's about to bolt for greener pastures.

SHAPIRO: So going back to this specific speech on Sunday, why, after six months of being silent and absent from the spotlight, would - at this moment - he feel the need to rally the troops in a way that you're describing?

HOF: I suspect that people may have been nervous about the comings and goings of the U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who replaced Kofi Annan several months ago. What Brahami has been trying to do is to resurrect an outline for political transition in Syria, an outline that was very significantly agreed upon by the five permanent members of the United Nations back in June of last year.

SHAPIRO: You say very significantly because on the issue of Syria, it has not always been easy to get international consensus.

HOF: It's been very difficult. But for, you know, for one shining moment, if you will, Kofi Annan succeeded in getting the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China to sign up to something that you could really describe as a managed process of regime change.

SHAPIRO: But in this speech, Bashar al-Assad effectively said: I'm not buying into this plan. I'm not going anywhere.

HOF: Well, that's exactly right, and - although I don't know if Brahimi has commented on it yet. The secretary-general of the United Nations certainly has, and he has - he's decried the speech because it's quite defiant. It misidentifies the nature of the problem that the Assad regime faces.

SHAPIRO: And so where does that leave us? More blood, more civilian deaths on top of the 60,000 that have already taken place? Or could this speech galvanize the international community to a level that we haven't seen yet?

HOF: I suspect, Ari - and I'm sorry to reach this conclusion - but I do suspect it means more blood. It means a protracted process. It means yet more combat on the ground. It means yet more regime attacks on bread lines, on populated areas. So we are going to see the casualty count mounting, I'm afraid.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you allude to what life is like in Syria right now, let's bring Deb Amos into the conversation. She is on a rare visit back to the United States, and here with us in Studio 3A. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about what you've seen in your travels.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: And what have you seen in your travels?

AMOS: I think what is clear in the past couple of weeks is the method that the regime has used to try to put down the rebels has only gotten tougher. Now, in the past couple of days, there are surface-to-surface missiles that are being shot into Aleppo. Bread lines are being attacked, mostly in the mornings. So you have to imagine what it's like to stand for hours in a bread line and never know if you're going to come home that night, if you are not going to be subject to attack.

We see more and more displaced inside Syria in a season where the weather is particularly cold. There's a snowstorm in southern Turkey and in northern Syria.

SHAPIRO: I was reading about these tent cities where people are being frozen and washed away and living in misery.

AMOS: Indeed. And, in fact, there was a riot in one of the camps in Jordan, because life is so tough in those places. At the same time, we've already seen a reaction on the ground to Assad's speech. For the last six weeks, the weapon flow coming in through Turkey from the rebels' backers has essentially dried up. And I think that's because many people thought that there was going to be negotiations. I spoke to some rebel commanders last night, and they said the arms have started again.

SHAPIRO: Is everyone in the middle of this conflict either a rebel sympathizer or a government supporter? Or are there a lot of people who are just apolitical, caught in the crossfire? Or are those people all now refugees in Jordan or Lebanon?

AMOS: Less and less people are on the fence. I think you still can find some, but if you're on the fence, you probably left. Or the alternative is you're too poor to leave. It takes some resources to get out of the country, to pay the money to cross the border. So that has always been a bar to the very, very poor. But most people have made a decision one way or the other.

And we saw in the speech that the president gave this week, it took place in an opera house, and he was surrounded by supporters who were - it was like they were watching a rock star.

SHAPIRO: What an odd contrast with the images of destruction and blood and horror that we've seen in Syria and this opulent opera house in the middle of Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad is proclaiming his determination.

AMOS: Both sides are very, very good at theater and propaganda. YouTube has been the outlet for the rebels and the opposition, and Bashar has used Syrian television to a great extent to telegraph his message, and the message on Sunday was I'm not going anywhere.

SHAPIRO: You described kind of the horrific experience of waiting in a bread line for hours, wondering if a bomb is going to fall on you. Tell us more about what daily life is like for people who are still in Syria.

AMOS: Well, daily life is really about staying warm and finding food. In many towns, you will find maybe 10,000, sometimes 20,000 displaced, living in schools, and you can find them living even near the borders in the old customs sheds, under tents. You see laundry strung out, kids running around. It's a very difficult life in most of these towns in the north, even where the regime has withdrawn.

It is now up to the rebels to bring order there. Also, there are civilians that are beginning to organize as alternative governments in these places, very difficult to do because they have no resources to do it. It was hoped certainly by them that when the opposition organized themselves in Morocco, when they were recognized by the international community, that some resources would come to them through the external opposition.

That really hasn't happened. It's only a trickle now. So to try to put together a local government without resources is not an easy thing to do.

SHAPIRO: A few weeks ago, there was an acute international fear that Bashar al-Assad was going to use chemical weapons against his people. Ambassador Frederic Hof, is that fear still very acute? Has that threat subsided?

HOF: The fear is still acute. My understanding is that the weaponry is, in fact, ready to be deployed. So this is something that the international community I think is going to continue to rivet attention on.

SHAPIRO: My understanding is that if it is deployed, there is very little time to respond.

HOF: There is very little time to respond, and I - you know, I suspect, you know, going back to the initial point, Ari, about why the speech, what President Assad was saying, the chemical element of this weighs in the equation, because on the one hand, you have Assad saying the situation is well in hand. I'm dealing with a handful of foreign terrorists with foreign masters. I'm going to dominate this situation. We're going to win.

And on the other hand, he's willing to contemplate the absolutely desperate measure of using chemical munitions against his own people. So there is a basic contradiction there.

SHAPIRO: And Deb Amos, is there a very acute fear of that from the people you talked to on the ground? Or are they just so consumed with avoiding bombs and finding food that they're already stretched to the limit?

AMOS: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I think that is most of their concerns, and it's about daily life. But when there was interest in the international community a few weeks ago, I didn't talk to anybody on the ground who didn't think he would do it. All along, the regime has tested the international community. Is it OK to kill 10? Is it OK to kill 100? Is it OK to kill 5,000 a month? And the answer every time has been yes, it is.

SHAPIRO: Stay with us. Our guests are NPR correspondent Deb Amos and Ambassador Frederick Hof. We're talking about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. What questions do you have about him and about his inner circle? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. We'll have more in just a minute. I'm Ari Shapiro. Stay with us. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


SHAPIRO: The news from Syria these days is not good. In addition to the recent U.N. report that counted more than 60,000 dead because of the civil war, there's this from the World Food Program: One million Syrians are going hungry. The agency has been getting food to some of the population, but many Syrians in the most dangerous parts of the country are out of reach.

Recent months have been the deadliest in the nearly two years of fighting, and President Bashar al-Assad's defiant speech Sunday in Damascus confirmed that he has no intention of yielding to calls for his resignation.

What questions do you have about Assad and his inner circle? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. My guests include Ambassador Frederic Hof and Deb Amos, foreign correspondent from NPR.

Also here in the studio with us is Andrew Tabler. He's a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and he's author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." Welcome to the program, Andrew.


SHAPIRO: And we have an email question from Steve in Minneapolis, who writes: What are Assad's options, and what are the options for the Alawite population?

TABLER: Yeah. I think his options are narrowing. And if we were a little bit earlier in the conflict, if there was less bloodshed, I think there would have been a greater chance for a negotiated exit, and one that involved President Assad - an actual transition with President Assad leaving power, remnants of the regime staying in place and there being some sort of orderly departure.

And I think President Assad's speech has showed us that he's not about ready to do that. I think his words actually, at this point, matter. I know a lot of people think that words don't matter, that, oh, well, we would expect him to say such a thing if there were really fruitful negotiations going on. I don't think you have - that you give that kind of speech 22 months into a conflict unless you really mean it.

SHAPIRO: So are you saying he won't leave the country alive?

TABLER: I think that in the end, he probably won't. I don't know who would accept him. Even for anyone who would accept President Assad in the end, it would be a huge liability for them. So I wouldn't imagine even the Russians would want him at this point. Perhaps the Iranians would. And that's, you know, that's, of course, an option. But I think there's just a lot of...

SHAPIRO: Although even they seem to have made clear that if Assad uses chemical weapons, all bets are off.

TABLER: Well, that's true. I mean, I suppose that. I mean, President Assad is very - actually, President Assad is crazy like a fox. He is very good at pressing and defining our red lines and pushing them. And what he's showed is that he can - and the New York Times depicted this in the story yesterday, which quoted, I don't know, about a dozen different, you know...

SHAPIRO: Intelligence sources, yeah.

TABLER: ...yeah, saying that, you know, the sarin gas is loaded into bombs on or near airfields, and could be dispersed - could be used without warning. They could be dispersed, and there's really not much we could do about it. And also, sarin gas dissipates very quickly. So he could actually use them...

SHAPIRO: And we might not know.

TABLER: Well, yes, and I think most importantly, it's pretty clear that while we've been pushing him not to use them, he - in order for there to be any kind of intervention or prevention of this, he would have to use them. And then even if he did use them, there would be a verification process whether he did or not. That's really not going to go over very well, not only for Syrians, but Arabs in general in the region. And it's going to be a huge hit for the United States and its credibility in the region.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a call from Bruce in Hightstown, New Jersey. Hi, Bruce. You're on the air.

BRUCE: Hi, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine, go ahead.

BRUCE: Yeah. It was my understanding when Bashar al-Assad first came into power, that he approached the United States looking for some backdoor relationship. And I was wondering, had that ever occurred, would that have made any difference? And were there any kinds of contacts off the grid prior to this revolution?

SHAPIRO: Andrew Tabler, what can you tell us about backdoor contacts with Syria?

TABLER: There were a number. I think, actually, Ambassador Hof's well-placed to talk about this, as well. But this was going back before the revolution. There were a lot of extensive discussions between the United States and Syria over a number of issues.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Hof, as a former State Department official, can you reflect on any of this?

HOF: Yeah. I suppose the highlight of U.S.-Syrian diplomatic interactions came late in the term of President Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, when there were some very serious and detailed discussions about the contours of a possible peace agreement between Israel and Syria. That process collapsed right around the time of President Hafez al-Assad's death.

And when Bashar al-Assad took over as president, it took a while for any kind of relationships to begin to mature. I would sum it up like this: Yeah, I think President Bashar al-Assad was certainly interested in having a cordial, productive relationship with the United States, certainly a relationship without any economic sanctions or any of that business, but was never really willing to do what it would take to have that kind of a relationship.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Tabler, tell us about who is closest to Bashar al-Assad now. Who are his loyalists? Who are the people who might be able to still influence him?

TABLER: Well, the Assad regime is a family affair. So you would have around Bashar his brother, for example, Maher al-Assad. But I think - and also family members, who may or may not have been wounded in a blast in July, including Hafez Makhlouf and a number of others.

But actually, Syria is essentially ruled by security chiefs, and then members of the army. And there you have a number of figures who are very influential. And there's - you know, after the - after the four deaths in the summer, we're looking at about 12 people who were around the core of the regime. And in the end, those are the main figures that, in the past, have been talked about that would have to go.

And almost all - I think almost - no. All of them now are Alawite.

SHAPIRO: Deb Amos, do you get a sense from your time in Syria that his circle is shrinking? Clearly, the rebels have held more territory recently than they were holding a year ago. How are things changing over the course of this conflict?

AMOS: I think the core of the regime stays as strong as it's been since the beginning. What has fallen away is the traditional supports that Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, has put in place. For example, the Sunni business class, most of those businessmen have taken their money and moved out of the country, and some of them have been supporters of the opposition.

There is an effort now in southern Turkey, by businessmen in Dubai, Syrians, to begin to move flour into the country, to start commerce again. And so that part of his support is now gone. What has happened is that the inner circle and his loyalists have shrunk into top Alawites. It is a sectarian support.

You'll find some Sunnis who still do support him, but not very many.

SHAPIRO: Let's take another call, from Sally in Shawnee, Kansas. Hi Sally.

SALLY: Hello, I have a two-part question.


SALLY: The first is: These air-to-surface missiles, which he has at the ready, are they armed with the sarin gas, or alternatively with munitions, bombs, et cetera? My second question is: What does this do to our relationship with Turkey? We know that there are 400 Navy SEALs in Turkey, ostensibly in an advisory capacity. What does this do to our relationship with Turkey, and what does it have to do with Turkey's relationship with the EU?

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the questions, Sally. Let's put the first part to Deb Amos about the weapons. Go ahead.

AMOS: Surface-to-surface appears to be not armed with chemical weapons. I think we would have heard something about that by now. And they seem to be more accurate over time. There was a report in the New York Times and other outlets that these are Iranian-made missiles, and he has been using those over the past couple of weeks.

But I have to say that a weapon that has been most destructive is something called a barrel bomb, and it is the most simple of destructive and horrible weapons. It is a barrel, and it's filled with explosives and nails, and it is dropped from a helicopter or a plane, and it is terribly inaccurate, and it destroys houses and apartment buildings and does quite a bit of damage.

SHAPIRO: And let's put the second part of the question about the relationship with Turkey to Andrew Tabler.

TABLER: Yeah, increasingly complicated. There's a lot - Turkey, you know, has a very long border with Syria. So it can't afford to ignore a lot of this - not just in the humanitarian, but from a security perspective. And getting to Deb's point about the, you know, the surface-to-surface missiles, you know, those are strategic weapons. So I don't know if a sovereign power has ever used strategic weapons against its own - fired missiles against its own population.

The Soviets did in Afghanistan in the '80s, but I can't recall a similar situation. So Turkey is afraid, quite rightly, given the targets, that some of those missiles would fly into those areas. And that's the reason why Patriot Missiles were deployed there recently.

SHAPIRO: We have a question here from Suzanne(ph), who asks: Do any of the guests have insights about Assad will leave Damascus to go to the Latakia region? This region has so far been spared the destruction that other areas have suffered. Ambassador Hof?

HOF: I think there is probably a pretty good chance that that, ultimately, Assad and his family will move to that region, perhaps as a step toward moving abroad. But clearly, clearly, right now, his top priority is to retain control of Damascus. If he loses Damascus, he's finished, because he is basically of very marginal use to his own supporters once that happens.

SHAPIRO: Let's take a question from Cindy in Lake Tahoe, California. Hi, Cindy.

CINDY: Oh, hi. This is a hideous question, but it did pop into my head, so I'm going to ask it. Did no one think of bombing the opera house?


CINDY: No, I - well, there were a lot of people there, but a whole lot less than 60,000 people.

TABLER: Yeah. I would suspect not. I think there's been a lot of probably calculations about whether to bomb the presidential palace or not. But remember that the United States, one of the constraints of the United States has policy-wise is that the United States wants President Assad to step aside, but it has not made the decision to be a combatant in the Syrian war. And that constrains things a lot legally. So there are a lot of limits on what we can do, and that includes not only striking place - striking facilities, but also backing the rebels.


SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call.

CINDY: OK. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And we have some questions via email here from Charlie that sort of go to conditions on the ground. After two years, Charlie asks, is Bashar still collecting taxes? How long will his financial reserves allow him to remain in power? And he goes on: What percentage of children are still going to school? Are crops still being farmed and raised? Deb?

AMOS: Those are such interesting questions, because it's the detail of daily life.


AMOS: Crops, no, because there's no gas to run the tractors. And so there is some farming, but it's very primitive.

SHAPIRO: So where does food come from?

AMOS: It comes from the outside, and that's why things are so tough in the north. There's hardly any bread. Yes, there are kids going to school in Damascus and Aleppo, but mostly in the government-controlled areas. The kids are going to school in the refugee camps run by parents and volunteer teachers. Up until now, government salaries are still being paid. However, in the past couple of months, somebody just told - weeks, somebody told me this from Aleppo, you now have to show up at a government office to pick up your paycheck.

You can't send your uncle or your cousin. And so the message of that is if you're a loyalist, we will continue to pay your governor salary. And if you are not, you probably can't get through a checkpoint to come to an office and pick up your pay. So they're beginning to winnow out. And the president said this very clearly in that speech on Sunday: We will punish the people who are against us, and we will reward the people who are with us.

SHAPIRO: And then we have two questions that go to what happens after Assad - again, from Charlie. Is fear of a strict Islamic replacement government preventing common united resistance? And then from Tana(ph), the question is: If Assad leaves, what could prevent Syria from the kind of terrible conflict between Sunni and Shia that occurred in Iraq? Ambassador Hof?

HOF: Yeah. These are excellent questions. Ari, I don't think there is anybody in Syria - and I would include President Bashar al-Assad in the category of anybody. There is no one who doubts the incompetence, the corruption and the brutality of this regime - no one. But there are still plenty of Syrians, mainly in Syrian minorities, Alawites, Christians and others who are worried about what comes next. And when some of these rebel fighters appear on cable television stations that are viewed widely in Syria, in places like Damascus, you know, frankly, the image they portray sometimes is a bit frightening to these folks.

Deb alluded earlier to fewer and fewer people on the fence. This is true in terms of people having no illusions about the Assad family, but there are still plenty - there are still, I would suspect, millions of Syrians who worry about what's coming next.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about the conflict in Syria, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's go to Malas(ph) in Detroit. Hi, Malas.

MALAS: Hi. My quick question: President Obama has said many times that sarin can be (unintelligible) anyway, but not with chemical weapons. And apparently, Bashar used it last month, and no action was taken against him. That's one question.

SHAPIRO: I don't believe we have evidence that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons. There was a fear that he would do so.

MALAS: Oh, I've seen, like, YouTubes, you know, showing people with burned skin. People over there, they reported many times that he used it - some gases, and some reported this. So, of course, I'm not on ground to bring you some sample of that. But apparently, the people who are on ground, they showed it on YouTube, and they report it many times. The other question, the United States has been filtering the weapons that might be smuggled to Syria from Turkey.

They are removing any heavy weapons and allowing just light weapons to go to the rebels. It seems like the United States is not ready to allow this conflict to end and giving more time to Bashar al-Assad.


MALAS: That's, you know, that's in the Syrian community in the United States. That's always the discussion why this is happening.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So it sounds as though your question is: What is the red line for President Obama? Deb, do you want to start by addressing what we do know about chemical weapons in Syria?

AMOS: There have been reports of chemical weapons use. There was some study of this by Syrian-American doctors, and they concluded that some of these weapons might be classified as chemical weapons, but not the chemical weapons, not sarin, not tabun, not all of the ones that we list as weapons of mass destruction, WMD. And there are many people who surmised when this happened this was yet another test, and the opposition was in danger of crying wolf a little bit too loudly. And there were those who said, you know, be careful, because if this does really happen and you yell now, will the international community listen? So I think it was a bit of a test.

SHAPIRO: And so, Ambassador Hof, I guess the overarching question is: With 60,000 people dead in Syria already, at what point does the U.S. say, enough? We have to marshal all of our resources to make sure this ends.

HOF: I suspect, Ari, that this is a discussion and a debate that goes on constantly within the administration. It's a very important question, because, again, coming back to Bashar al-Assad's speech, he made it clear that from his point of view, there is no real ground for negotiations. Therefore, this is going to be fought out on the ground. Therefore, those who have weapons, those who are doing the fighting are going to have a lot to say about how Syria is governed in the future. And this is the question for the United States.

SHAPIRO: That's Ambassador Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He recently left a post at the State Department as special adviser for the transition in Syria. We're also joined by Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow of the program on Arab politics in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria," as well as Deb Amos, NPR's foreign correspondent who's been in the Middle East. Thanks to you all. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.