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You're reading: Leading from behind? Syria’s invisible president

BEIRUT - As it spirals deeper into civil war, racked by violence, bombs and assassinations, Syria is led by an invisible president.

Since Bashar al-Assad addressed parliament in his last major
public appearance in early June, rebels have taken their fight
to overthrow him into Syria’s two main cities, seized swathes of
countryside and assassinated four of his top security officials.

Faced with such devastating setbacks, many leaders – Libya’s
Muammar Gaddafi springs to mind – would leap onto the public
stage to reassure supporters they were still around, still in
charge and ready to lead the fightback.

Instead, aside from two silent clips shown on television and
a written message to his troops delivered on Wednesday, Assad
has remained out of view for two weeks as the threat to his
power and authority grows graver and ever more sustained.

His silence after the July 18 bombing which killed four of
his inner circle, including his brother-in-law, has sparked
rumours about his whereabouts and his grip on power –
speculation which his opponents have been happy to fuel.

The United States says it does not know where Assad is, but
“his control is slipping away, wherever he is”.

“We think it’s cowardly, quite frankly, to have a man who’s
hiding out of sight, exhorting his armed forces to continue to
slaughter the civilians of his own country,” State Department
spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Wednesday.

Lengthy spells of silence from the 46-year-old leader are
nothing new. He took two weeks to respond when the uprising
against his rule erupted in March last year and has made little
more than a handful of significant appearances since then. But
his latest retreat from view is odd in a time of acute crisis.

“Logic might demand that because of the uncertainties right
now he would be more attentive to reassuring his adoring public
– but that isn’t the logic that prevails here,” said a diplomat
in Damascus.

IN CONTROL

But the diplomat and analysts said Assad’s low profile did
not mean he had lost control.

“By all accounts he is still a very central figure,” said
Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign
Relations. “All the reports we have seen from people in the
regime point to Assad having a hands-on grasp of what is
happening.

“We have known for some time that this is a coterie of
officials, many of them from his family, directing what is going
on. But he is the arbiter, directing the crackdown,” he said.

The first sign that Assad was still in charge came when he
appointed a new defence minister just four hours after the
bombing of his top security officials. An ashen-looking Assad
was later shown swearing in the minister – one of just two clips
of the president shown on Syrian television since the bombing.

Since then he has reshuffled his security “crisis team” to
replace slain officials and on Wednesday told his troops, in a
message published by the armed forces magazine, that their
battle with rebels would decide the fate of the country.

“The only focus of Assad’s attention at the moment is how to
crush this uprising by military means,” said Barnes-Dacey,
arguing that Assad may have clammed up simply because he had
nothing to say to Syrians right now.

“Everyone knows on the ground that you are either with the
regime or against it, and the fight will unfold on the
battlefield rather than through the rhetoric.”

“Until the regime feels it has the upper hand, I don’t think
we will see him again,” he said. “His style and personality is
one that only engages, whether with his own people or the
international community, from a position of strength.”

SECURITY FEARS

If Assad is biding his time until he can announce better
news, the stunning assassinations last month showed that even
his close family, and by extension the president himself, are
personally vulnerable to attack by emboldened rebels.

Knowing that a successful strike against him could deliver
victory for rebels in a single blow, Assad will think long and
hard about the risks of any public appearance.

He stayed away from the state funeral for his
brother-in-law, and could be forced into the kind of seclusion
endured by his Lebanese ally, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan
Nasrallah.

Nasrallah has barely appeared in public after going
underground six years ago to avoid assassination by Israel after
its month-long war with the Shi’ite militant group in 2006.

Assad’s silence contrasts starkly with the approach adopted
by Gaddafi, who made frequent defiant speeches as Libya’s
revolution closed in on him until his violent death last year.

“(The July 18 bombing) was a great psychological shock. It
will take Assad time to regain his footing and his equilibrium,”
said Fawaz Gerges, Director of the Middle East Centre at the
London School of Economics.

But the speed with which he reassembled his team of close
aides showed that “far from being a spent force, the security
apparatus is still functioning”, Gerges said.

“You are going to see more violence and more massive force
deployed in Aleppo for him to win the battle.”

His assessment of Assad’s unexpected steeliness echoes that
of diplomats and Lebanese politicians who have followed the
president’s response to the Syrian crisis throughout.

One Western diplomat in Beirut said an official who visited
Assad recently reported that the president compared himself to a
ship’s captain, vowing to stay at the helm in contrast to an
Italian skipper accused in January of abandoning ship after
steering it onto rocks off the Italian coast.

That defiance will ensure Assad is likely to keep fighting,
long after his opponents believe that victory is in their grasp.

“I have no doubt in my mind he has proven much more
resilient, stubborn, committed and much more prepared to win the
battle of his life,” Gerges said. “I think even the Americans
and Western European leaders are taking a second look at him.”

“All the analysis said that he is the soft type, without
fire in his belly. He proved everyone wrong for the last 17
months.”

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