Wartime Damascus is a city of sandbagged checkpoints where lines of idling vehicles await inspection by soldiers and militiamen carrying Kalashnikovs and bomb detectors. Concrete blast walls surround government buildings, where visitors go through airport-style examination. There is the frequent thump of government artillery aimed at rebel positions, which send mortars crashing into the city centre and other loyalist districts.
The relatively low-key security around President Bashar al-Assad therefore came as a surprise to members of an Australian "solidarity delegation" visiting the Syrian capital. They answered an invitation to meet the President on a cold morning just before Christmas -- finally splashed across the front page of The Australian
last week, prompting fierce condemnation from Prime Minister Tony Abbott
and others -- during a week of meetings with government ministers and religious leaders.
The Australians were from Sydney-based lobby group Hands off Syria and the WikiLeaks Party. Both reject foreign military support for Syrian rebels and advocate a political solution to the crisis. Hands off Syria also raises donations for Syrian hospitals. I received approval to accompany the delegation to most of the meetings and recorded the discussions, though recorders and cameras were banned from the audience with Assad.
Collected from their hotel in black VW vans sent by the presidential protocol office, the delegates were checked through a lightly guarded barrier gate to a nondescript, sand-coloured building in a quiet suburban street. Sharply dressed men with walkie-talkies patrolled the footpath, but inside there was no pat-down or metal detector.
Assad made no grand, sweeping entrance. A lanky, slightly awkward figure, he stood alone to shake the hand of each of the 11 Australians as they filed into an anteroom. "Welcome to Syria, thank you for coming," he said, and, to WikiLeaks Party head John Shipton: "You are the father of Assange? He looks like you."
With everyone seated, and the photographers and cameramen done, Assad began a 45-minute discussion in English, including questions. He said the conflict, which has dragged on for almost three years, was neither a struggle between sects nor a popular revolution but rather a foreign-backed terrorist campaign.
The United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Arab Gulf monarchies support rival rebel factions, and there is a significant force of foreign fighters. Anti-government groups are mostly Islamists who oppose Syria’s secular legal and government systems. The authoritarian Ba'ath Party has run the Sunni-majority nation with an iron fist for half a century, but the constitution it put in place protects religious minorities such as Christians, Shi’ites, Alawis, Druze and others who have enjoyed a religious pluralism and tolerance unique in the Middle East.
Expanding on his theme of foreign support for the insurgency, Assad said Saudi Arabia in particular was seeking to export its fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology by supplying militants with money and arms. "They are even releasing Saudi terrorists from prison with an amnesty if they go to fight Syria," he told the group.
"You see the worst culture in the world in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Those who will not let women wear trousers are trying to export their culture to the rest of the world. Children are seeing people beheaded to shouts of Allah Akbar -- how can we deal with this in the future?"
Asked to identify any strategic shifts on and off the battlefield during 2013, Assad talked about the "non-stop advance of the army for the last six months". Then he referred to the war's destructive human and material consequences, adding: "We have advanced in the military sphere, but can we talk about victory?"
He claimed morale among the population had risen over the past year, with "Leftists and intellectuals" in particular moving against "terrorists" in support of the government. "When the situation moved from armed demonstrations to an uprising and massacres people started to realise what was happening … I have been pictured as a bloody dictator killing his own people. Am I a superman to stand against the US without popular support?"
He said Western powers were shifting positions with "more secret government delegations coming to Syria -- secret because they don't want to risk their contracts with the Saudis."
Assad finished by explaining that he gave an interview to Fox News -- "the most right-wing channel" -- because "they wanted to use me against Obama, and I wanted to use them. I am very open to do interviews with anyone."