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Assad at the Opera House

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Damascus.

Easy walking distance from this observer’s hotel near the city center, the Damascus Opera House, the site of yesterday’s Presidential  address, was inaugurated in May of 2004 by the President and his wife, 
completing a project of his late father, Hafez, who actually planned the 
opera house in detail, but which had been put on hold since the late 1970’s.  
Located off Umayyad Square, the multipurpose culture center complex, 
presented its most recent opera, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s, The Marriage 
of Figaro, just months before the current crisis erupted.

The nearly 1,400 seating capacity Opera Theater was packed for yesterday’s presidential address, and as in the final scene of Mozart’s Opera, the 
conclusion of Bashar Assad’s performance was followed by, as Mozart wrote, 
“a night-long celebration” among many of his supporters here in Damascus.

Basher Assad’s glory, as he tried to leave the stage last night and was 
swarmed by scores of admirers, may not have been that of Caesar’s, during 
the Gallic wars as the latter also portrayed a domestic crisis and challenge 
as a defensive struggle to save “Rome”. And granted, it is unlikely that 
Syria’s president will appear to his critics as posh as John Kennedy at 
Vienna’s Opera House.

But the man connected with his audience (s) during his watershed speech.

He excelled in delivery, content and, most critically, stating and 
advocating what he believes is his countryman’s case.  While welcoming 
foreign advice on how to end the current crisis, he insisted that the Syrian 
people throughout their history of resistance to occupation and hegemony 
have rejected the orders from certain governments he referred to, in the 
current crisis, as the “masters of the puppets” who are every day causing 
death, destruction and deprivations across the Syrian Arab Republic.

Admittedly sleep deprived, this observer, as he listened to Bashar Assad’s 
address was reminded of a Macbeth or Brutus soliloquy. I could not help but 
transpose in my mind Brutus’ plea in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius 
Caesar:

Who is here so rude or unpatriotic that would not be a Syrian? 
Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak–for him

I have not intentionally or unjustly wronged. I pause for a reply.”

 

Following his presidential address to the nation, one local journalist, who 
is sometimes critical of the regime, elaborated–in answer to my question 
about Assad’s apparent enduring popularity during this tragic period for 
people of Syria:

 “It’s true. And it’s partly due to the fact that he is modest, even humble–
and well-educated in contrast to some regional monarchs who are 
essentially illiterate and uninterested in the world outside their fiefdoms 
palaces.” She continued, “Before the crisis it was not unusual to spot him, 
without a security convoy, driving himself around downtown, his car full of 
kids- doing errands or taking them out to eat-sometimes collecting them from 
school. You saw his almost boyish charm yesterday as he entered the hall and 
made his way down the aisle to the podium as he greeted members of the 
audience. As he departed he did not appear in a hurry as he shook hands. 
Bashar Assad obviously enjoys being among people and is not at all a sullen 
remote type personality as some critics wrongly portray him.”

Following the speech, when the lovely chamber maid who daily spruces 
up my hotel room dropped by in early evening to do something, 
I was reading and watching the news. They showed a clip of the president 
delivering his noontime speech. She lite up when she saw Bashar, 
spontaneously walked across the room, wrapped her arms around the TV 
set and hugged it while kissing the screen. I noticed that the lady’s hands 
were wet and became fearful that the dear woman might get electrocuted!

One well known politically connected Sheik in Damascus offered his view 
last night to this observer that Assad’s message was to the Syrian people 
and  to his country’s foreign friends and to those who are neutral–and not 
to his governments enemies. He also suggested that the President will 
deliver two more speeches in the near future, the next one perhaps having a 
“FDR fireside chat” format. The Sunni Sheik referred to yesterday’s speech 
as the first of three “victory” speeches he expected to be delivered.

He also spoke about the UAE and Saudi Arabia in relation to what was 
happening in Syria and the fact that they are experiencing challenges of 
their own.  In the case of the Saudi Kingdom, and against the backdrop of 
increased Iran-Saudi consultations regarding Syria, the ill health of King 
Abdullah and the evident succession power struggle which has intensified 
recently, with some of the royal family potentates reportedly being strongly 
opposed to the current campaign to undermine the Assad regime. The Syrian 
government, despite its detractors, is seen by many in the Gulf countries as 
being pedigree Arab nationalists with a history of mutual respect for other 
countries.

The Sheik also sees signs of the Obama administration backing off from its 
covert war against Syria partly due to the fractured and often coherent 
message coming from various spokesman of the misnomered “coalition.” 

Mr. Assad, in what historians and Middle East analysts may well dub an 
historic speech, offered a new plan to his countrymen, friends and foes 
alike, and to the international community to immediately end the crisis

It includes, in sequential order:

* foreign countries to stop financing the rebels;

* Syria’s government putting down its arms and declaring 
an amnesty;

* a national conference and dialogue;

* the drafting of a constitution approved by referendum;

* a coalition government, presumably until the holding of 
elections scheduled for 2014.

One Congressional staffer on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee  emailed late today that the Obama administration may well be willing to  accept Bashar Assad’s “Damascus Opera House” formula given the fast  changing geopolitical reality the region and the military stalemate on the  ground in Syria. Both facts suggesting that there is no realistic alternative  to the current elected government or that there is much of a realistic  prospect that the regime will throw in the towel or collapse anytime soon.

The Congressional staffer, who works on US-Middle East issues, also  believes that the incoming Secretary of State, John Kerrey and the likely  new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who will face a tough Senate  confirmation fight, but will likely survive it, would go along.  In contract to President Assad’s speech this morning, one of the leaders of  the so-called opposition, George Sabra, did not appear capable of offering  much to aid the process of ending the current crisis in Syria.   Said Mr. Sabra, “No one could possibly think about dialogue or working  with this regime in any way.  It is not a possibility. It is out of the question.”

This may not be the evolving international view.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and can be reached c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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