Assad: A dictator in denial

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You have to hand it to Syria's Bashar Assad; the man's got chutzpah. His interview in Damascus last week with ABC's Barbara Walters was either a case study in delusional thinking or unbounded cynicism. Mr. Assad's amazing performance, in which he denied any role in the killing of thousands of demonstrators protesting his rule, was an uninterrupted outpouring of absurd lies, obfuscations and evasions that would have embarrassed even his murderously deceitful father, the late former president Hafez Assad, from whom he inherited his position.

Among the whoppers the dictator unburdened was the assertion that he bore no responsibility whatever for the 3,400 people the United Nations says have died at the hands of his security forces since the uprising in Syria began eight months ago. When Ms. Walters pressed him about who gave the army orders to shoot, he claimed no such order was given. "But you're the president, they're your security forces," Ms. Walters insisted. Not at all, Mr. Assad countered. "The security forces belong to the government, not to me," he said.


Even more preposterous was Mr. Assad's suggestion that he would never think of remaining in power unless he had the support of "the people." That obviously didn't include the residents of the rebellious city of Homs, who woke up Tuesday to find the bodies of dozens of their neighbors — many bearing signs of torture — unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the town square. Homs has been a hotbed of opposition to the government, and its inhabitants have suffered grievously at the hands of government troops.

Nor did Mr. Assad's professions of innocence apparently take into account the thousands of activists who have been thrown into prison and tortured for daring to criticize the government, or the hundreds of people killed by government-sponsored thugs. Mr. Assad claimed he felt not a speck of remorse for the carnage taking place in his country because he "didn't kill anybody." It made no difference what the U.N. said, he claimed, because its reporting was "unreliable." No state can survive if it kills its own people, he said: "Only a crazy person would do that."


Is Mr. Assad crazy? No, but he is desperate, and that's what is driving the total disconnect between his words and his actions. It's also what has infuriated former allies such as Turkey as well as the Arab League. They are fed up with his tactic of saying one thing and doing another. Every promise he has made them to stop murdering his own citizens and initiate reforms has been broken.

It's immaterial whether Mr. Assad actually believes what he's saying. What's clear is that he's still living in the past, when totalitarian regimes could conceal their ruthlessness by controlling the flow of information to the outside world. But that was before cell phone cameras and hand-held video recorders empowered activists to flood the Internet with prompt and convincing evidence of dictators' crimes. The Assad regime has banned foreign reporters and aid groups from entering the country, but the truth still will out.

The one positive development to come out of the turmoil in Syria is that Turkey and the Arab League have finally begun to take strong measures against the Assad regime. After months of feeling betrayed by Mr. Assad's duplicity, Turkey ratcheted up economic sanctions against the regime this week and closed an important export route through the country. Meanwhile, the Arab League governments dropped their unconditional support of a fellow Arab leader and called on Mr. Assad to step down. The U.S. should do whatever it can to support the emergence of such regional leadership.

Even though none of the Arab League governments are real democracies, it is an encouraging sign that they are willing in this case to acknowledge that even for authoritarian governments, there are limits to the state's power that cannot be crossed without losing legitimacy. Mr. Assad's bizarre explanation for what's happening in his country isn't fooling anyone, but apparently he still thinks he can get away with it. It's up to Syria's neighbors and the international community to convince him that he can't.