Inside Syria: An Ancient Country and a Modern Dictator

A reporter's notebook:

The first impression was simple, as obvious as the chill in the Damascus air: Things seem normal here.

We all felt it. Certainly we had known Damascus wasn't a focal point of the Syrian uprising, and thus had seen nothing like the brutal crackdowns carried out in Homs and other smaller cities. Still, some diplomats and security experts had warned of tensions and possible unrest; one had advised us to "keep as low a profile as possible."

And we had felt a new anxiety when our evening Royal Jordanian flight from Amman was cancelled, and an apologetic airline official explained that his crews were no longer overnighting in the Syrian capital. "It's because of the situation," he said.

So it was odd to find a nearly full flight the next morning, and then to drive from Damascus Airport and find the ancient city bustling and busy, absent demonstrations or checkpoints or other outward signs of a city under siege. Especially odd, knowing that a short drive away, violence was now almost a part of daily life.

Later, we visited generously stocked market stalls, meat, fish and produce piled high and plenty of customers choosing their goods. Far fewer people seemed to be buying in the covered alleys of the old souk,  but here it was crowded too. And across Damascus, traffic moved in its usual noisy, near-miss way.

As we walked and drove around the city, I thought of two other Arab capitals, and tense times nearly a generation apart. I had been in Baghdad in 1990, after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and before the United States and its allies (including, then, Hafez el-Assad's Syria) had begun the first Gulf War. That  had been a city under siege, tense and frightened, security all around.

I thought also of the earliest days of Egypt's uprising, nearly a year ago.  I hadn't been in Cairo then, but colleagues had described something like the disconnect we felt now, in Syria: Tahrir Square had been teeming and tense, while the rest of the capital went on about its business. Of course, that teeming square had quickly spread its message, and unrest. Less than a month after the Egyptian protests began, Hosni Mubarak was gone.

It's hard to imagine the same chaos and upheaval  coming to Damascus. But, then again, when you look at the circumstances - the growing anger of the protest movement, the militarizing of some of Bashar al-Assad's enemies and the international community's near-total isolation of Syria - it's also hard to see a peaceful way out of the crisis.

Which brings me to a second impression, more jarring than the first.

When you think "dictator," the mild, soft-spoken and occasionally even goofy mannerisms of Bashar al-Assad just aren't what come to mind. Again, we knew this to some extent, having watched his televised appearances over the years (Barbara Walters had met with him twice before). But after we met the man at the Presidential Palace, and then listened as he sparred with Walters for nearly an hour, I couldn't help thinking: This is the author of the region's most brutal crackdown? This is the leader of the nation a United Nations report blames for the killing and torture of innocent civilians, including more than 300 children?

Where, I thought, was the steely look, the arrogance, the intimidating gesture? Assad didn't even have a particularly firm handshake. In the interview he chuckled occasionally, and apologized when he misspoke or misunderstood a word ("my English is doctor's English, political English," he told Walters). Personality-wise, there's no Saddam or Gadhafi here. Not even a Hosni Mubarak.

Of course, a leader's personality doesn't matter much, certainly not to a protester taken out in cold blood, or a family whose sons have disappeared in the regime's jails. Assad concedes mistakes - "When you don't prepare yourself for a new situation, you are going to make mistakes," he told Walters -  and acknowledges that innocents have died and that his security forces overreached. But these, he insists, were the failings of "individuals," not the regime.

That same U.N. report found credible evidence that the regime gave shoot-to-kill orders to the security forces, but Assad says otherwise. "We don't kill our people," he said. "No government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person."

So who fired the bullets that took all those lives, more than 4,000 now, by various counts? What galls the Syrian opposition as much as the carnage itself is the fact that almost no one has been held accountable for the killings. Assad told us investigations were under way into all those "mistakes," but as one European diplomat in Damascus said, this is a regime famous for rounding up suspects swiftly, with brutal consequences. The idea that such investigations remained unsolved, eight or nine months after the crimes were committed, strains belief.

I had the same reaction to another claim Assad made, another statement delivered in breezy fashion.  When he said the majority of violence was now being committed against Syrian military and security forces, Walters asked whether journalists were free to travel the country to see for themselves. "Did anyone tell you where to go or where not to go? Nobody," Assad told Walters. "You are free to go wherever you want."

She pressed, saying she meant an open door for reporters generally. Again, he said, there would be no problem. Like most foreign editors, I have spent nearly nine months trying to obtain visas for our correspondents, to no avail.

After the interview, I tested the pledge. Our Middle East correspondent was in Damascus with the group, all of us in the company of government minders. Surely, I said to one of Assad's top aides, given the president's pledge, our reporter could now travel outside the capital?

The better part of the day was spent in a back and forth that reminded me of similar haggling in Moscow, in Cold War days. Yes, he could go; no, it would be better another time, on another visit; yes, he could go, but not tomorrow and not just anywhere. It was like Assad's position on allowing Arab League monitors into his country: Yes, but… 

Our reporter Alex Marquardt traveled to Dael and Deraa, where the uprising was born, and found, as he put it, "Not only would our team not be allowed to travel to Dael, but our car would be joined by eight others full of uniformed and plainclothes police, as well as Syrian state media, which filmed and photographed us all day."

Much of the Assad interview went this way, convincing-sounding statements that seemed dubious at best. Syria wasn't really isolated, Assad said; the defections in his armed forces weren't much beyond the usual attrition rates; he hadn't seen the U.N. report, nor some of the most brutal of the crackdown stories, and anyway, the U.N. wasn't a "credible institution."

And yet, sitting there, you felt the man believed much or most of what he was saying. So is Bashar al-Assad naïve? Hard to imagine. A good actor? Maybe. Or is he a firm believer in the brutal ways of his father, who just happened to fit the dictator mold more neatly?

Again, in the end, it might not matter. While we were in Syria, dozens more people, on both sides, were killed. More sanctions went into effect. Syria devalued its already-battled currency. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced she would meet with members of the Syrian opposition in Europe.

Calm and confident as Assad is, quiet and business-as-usual as his capital seems, we also couldn't stop wondering, as our plane lifted off from Damascus, whether a nasty future lies ahead, for that ancient city and its modern dictator.