It was the biggest performance in the short history of the Damascus Opera House. On Sunday, Jan. 6, a worldwide audience watched embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad take center stage and deliver a familiar monologue on the legitimacy, resilience, and victimization of his authoritarian regime.
Assad has made four similar speeches since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011: two at the Syrian People’s Assembly, described by journalist Brian Whitaker as “a temple for the Assad cult,” and two in Damascus University’s main auditorium.
For the past six months, however, the Syrian leader has remained silent and conveyed his messages through his armed forces and their increasingly indiscriminate use of firepower against the country’s population.
Perhaps rebel gains and rumors of Assad’s impending flight from the capital prompted this latest public appearance, a grandiose setup to reassure loyalists and reaffirm his intransigence.
The speech was timed to remind the world of the president’s leading role, his indispensability, and it immediately preceded another round of diplomacy on Syria between the U.N.-Arab League special envoy, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, and representatives of the United States and Russia.
There was little new content in Assad’s latest speech, except for the opening remarks that offered a sad assessment of Syria’s devastation, the responsibility for which was laid entirely at the feet of “criminals and terrorists,” and not his own air force and artillery. Then there was Assad’s three-stage political solution that offered uncertain terms for a cease-fire, convoluted plans for the eventual formation of a new government, and finally a period of national reconciliation.
There was no mention of any change to the office of the president, which is the main point of contention between the two sides of this conflict.
The rest of Assad’s speech covered rhetorical ground as tired and empty as many of the neighborhoods in Syria. It is a bizarre logic that sets up opposites and false analogies.
“Syrians abound with forgiveness and tolerance, but pride and patriotism run in their veins,” he said, and so in the president’s worldview one cannot be both proud and forgiving, or patriotic and tolerant.
His essential philosophy seems averse to compromise, making one question proposals of reform that he made.
How ironic that Assad chose to abandon his previous venues, the parliament and university, for the dramatic new setting of the opera house that he and his wife inaugurated in 2004. It was an instance of what Lisa Wedeen of the University of Chicago would call the Assad regime’s “politics of spectacle.”
The president wore a dark suit and dark tie as if in mourning for those lost in the conflict, and maybe in mourning also for the unassailable aura of strength once possessed by his now besieged government. He stood in front of a macabre mosaic of portraits of dead Syrians arranged in a semblance of the country’s flag, with the red stripe and green stars of the regime, not the green stripe and red stars of the rebels. The crowd was larger than at his other public addresses, creating an impression that he retained widespread support. It was comprised of men and women, old and young, whose presence suggested that a healthy cross-section of citizens still believe in his cause.
When the speech ends the real spectacle begins with everyone standing in applause. As the president tries to make his exit stage right the overzealous crowd presses forward and blocks his path. There is an unscripted moment when Assad is forced back up against the wall by the crush of bodies, then he and his security detail head in the opposite direction to exit stage left. The odd struggles accompanying this egress forces crowd members to be pushed violently off the stage.
The audience’s enthusiastic cheering required no orchestration; the almost instinctive displays of loyalty were synchronized long before audience members entered that theater. The vocabulary of their chanting revealed much about them. At the moment the president finally reached the exit it became: “Shabbiha lil abad, li ajl ayounak ya Assad,” or “[The Shabbiha] forever, for the sake of your eyes oh Assad!”
Despite the image of confident perseverance that this spectacle was meant to project, history may come to see it as the opening of the final act in a deadly tragedy that has gone on for far too long.
Bandar Shawwaf is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.