Acting clueless before “shock-and-awe” comes to Damascus, 47-year-old former opthamologist Bashar al-Assad went through his normal routine on the eve of what could be a devastating attack on the Syrian capital. Denying he used chemical weapons on civilians in East Damascus suburbs, a group of U.N. inspectors scrambles to explain the 355 poison gas asphyxiation deaths one week ago, Aug. 21. Whether al-Assad knew his military fired the Sarin-filled mortar shells or gave them to rebels is unknown. Warned by President Barack Obama in 2011 about crossing “red lines” with regard to using chemical weapons, al-Assad doesn’t seem to have a grip on the situation. Before March 20, 2003, the late Iraqi dictator and all his minions also had no clue what was coming, despite all the warnings. Al-Assad seems equally oblivious, mired in the minutia of his presidential palace.
Faced with air-strikes against his war machine, al-Assad’s days are no numbered, with rebels circling Damascus and other regime-controlled areas. “At the presidential place, everything is calm today and work goes on as usual. There’s no sign of nervousness. The same goes for the army headquarters. They will fight to the end,” said an unnamed Syrian businessman with close ties to al-Assad’s family. Taking the reins after his father Hafez al-Assad’s death June 10, 2000, the West hoped the young Bashar would act differently than his authoritarian father. Too young and inexperienced to govern, Bashar proceeded to let functionaries and bureaucrats run the show, eventually growing up when the Arab Spring made its way to Syria, March 11, 2011. Since then, he’s shown a degree of brutality equaling his father, killing more that 100,000 civilians and driving over 1 million into exile.
Like the calm-before-the-storm, al-Assad has brought the whole mess on himself using chemical weapons. “The president is carrying on with his activities and receiving advisors. You won’t see any trace of tiredness or stress. He tries to show that he’s in control of the situation,” said the businessman. Living in a bubble, al-Assad buries his head, ignores reality and so compartmentalizes his daily routine so he can’t see what’s coming. If he had any clue or if his advisors could say anything but say “yes,” he’d know that a U.S. Cruise missiles could paralyze his military. “[He considers] the threat of Western air strikes proof that this is an international plot promoted by Israel,” said the family friend, showing he’s either completely paranoid or believes his own propaganda that hasn’t go over well with the West. Only Russia, China and Iran pay lip service to Bashar’s worldview.
When Cruise missiles rain down on Damacus, Bashar will only get the wake-up call once it hits his presidential palace. While the stated goal of the air strikes is not “regime change,” the U.S. and its allies want al-Assad out of power. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey won’t be able to assure safety of U.S. forces unless al-Assad’s command-and-control centers are wiped out. “No more shy, ill-at-ease, president with a nervous laugh who address parliament in last March 2011. Today he is much more sure of himself and has more presence,” said the businessman, hinting that he won’t get the message unless it’s delivered close to home. Reluctant to intervene, Obama has bent-over-backwards, avoiding the inevitable in Syria. Jaded because of years of costly foreign wars, the American public is leery of intervening, with or without the use of poison gas.
Unable to read the international community, al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons shows his tone-deafness to world affairs. Unlike his politically savvy father, Bashar shows how cut-off he is from world opinion. “Bashar is too narrow-minded, and to fixed on the ideal of military gains and tactics,” said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International Affairs and Security,” accounting for differences between Bashar and his father. “This probably explains why he did not anticipate the international reaction to the use of chemical weapons,” Perthes said. With tyrannical dictators, they only want to hear good news from their subordinates. Brutal tyrants rarely have enough reality-testing to know how desperate things have become. When Cruise missiles and smart bombs light up the Damascus skyline, Bashar will probably ask his closest advisors what’s happening.
Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Bashar and his glamorous wife continue to deny reality of what’s about to happen. Consumed with surviving the Saudi-backed civil war against his regime, al-Assad pays little attention to Obama’s warnings of military action. “His wife is busy with the construction of a museum for children in the center of Damscus and also spend al lot of time with their two sons and daughter,” said the unnamed source. There’s no better wake-up call than setting his presidential palace ablaze. When a coalition-of-the willing gives Obama the green light for air strikes, al-Assad may get the message about using his chemical weapons arsenal. Some military experts expect the 47-year-old doctor to unload his chemical weapons arsenal on advancing rebel troops. Others think he’ll finally get the message and start arranging asylum in some sympathetic country.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.