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From Stalin to Bashar: Messages of love and hate - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In 1969, “comrade” Vyacheslav Molotov, former Russian Foreign Minister under Stalin – as well as one of Stalin’s closest aides – was approaching his eightieth year, living alone and forgotten after being ousted from power [in 1961] following the death of his leader. In the years that followed, many people wondered about the secrets and information he possessed about the ruling elite of the then Soviet Union. However, when Nikita Khrushchev – one of Molotov’s opponents – died, Leonid Brezhnev rose to power and lifted the state of house arrest that has been imposed on Molotov, who promptly returned the favor by handing over a number of important files that were in his possession, including Stalin’s secret letters which were preserved in the ruling party’s archive. Such letters remained hidden until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, US historian Lars Lih managed to publish them in 1995 under the title “Stalin’s Letters to Molotov, 1925–36”.

The importance of these letters lies in the fact that they are a major source of material to help us understand Stalin’s thought process. Lih indicates that Stalin, as seen in his letters, appears as a dictator who devotes every single moment of his life towards weaving conspiracy theories and plots, and getting rid of his opponents by first bringing them close to him, and then turning the tables on them at the height of their arrogance and conceit. Stalin was particularly impressed by Ivan the Terrible, whom he regarded as a champion. However, the letters also showed the human side of Stalin, as reflected in the Christmas greeting cards he sent to Molotov’s wife, his inquiries about their children’s health, and the educational advice and moral sermons he offered.

The recent leaked emails of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, as published by the press recently, can be considered an exceptional incident. In fact, this is the first time the world has been able to see the thought process of a president who uses excessive force to confront his people’s uprising against his rule. Whilst it is true that the accuracy of these emails cannot be verified conclusively, for the majority of them have been redacted or refined, they do offer us a rough vision of what is going on inside the al-Assad house, and they provide us with a rough diary of the regime in Syria following a year-long revolution. The press focused extensively on the lavishness and extravagance of the presidential couple – as seen in their online shopping, as well as the inner circle of female confidantes. However, what is of greater significance is the political and strategic side of the more than 3,000 emails. This is because, for the first time, we can view the decision-making mechanism within the regime, and the means and ways it uses to manage the crisis.

It might require dozens of specialized researchers and several months to analyze the full contents of these documents and draw up a complete summary. Further leaks may emerge in the event of the al-Assad regime being toppled, but for now at least we can come up with general remarks, most notably that the regime, contrary to what we all thought, seems calm and even cool in its handling of the crisis. The regime, as reflected by the leaks, does not seem to be greatly concerned about the possibility of its downfall, nor does there seem to be a “plan B” in place should the regime’s tactics fail. Al-Assad seems more coherent than his opponents think he is. His television appearances are well orchestrated and the regime’s statements are ornate and free from any noticeable confusion. The regime manages its media discourse itself and never allows any senior state official to issue statements. At a time when nearly 50 military officials are defecting from the regime on a daily basis, Bashar al-Assad, who is known for his love of modern technology, spends most of his time surfing the internet, listening to modern music, consulting with young female confidantes, and listening to advice and recommendations from outside the official channels of the state.

Some observers explain al-Assad’s behavior as that of a psychopathic character who – along with his family – lives under a dangerous illusion and is completely detached from the bloody reality his people are experiencing. However, there are those who believe that al-Assad’s state of coolness and coherence displays his ability to persist with confrontation, no matter how long it takes, as the current crisis requires each party to exercise patience for as long as possible. In a statement to the Financial Times in March 2012, Jerrold Post, a professor of political psychiatry at George Washington University, says that although Bashar al-Assad does not seem to be in direct contact with the crisis in Syria, he seems ” more put together” than someone like Gaddafi. According to Post, this can be explained by al-Assad’s background; “[he was] not a born leader, he was also not destined for the presidency, reaching it only because his brother Basil, the presumed heir, died in a car accident”.

Perhaps, this is the source of the danger – or even the weakness of Bashar al-Assad as a president. He relies primarily on the history of his father and the advice he receives from his inner circle. Yet, according to Post, “this was not part of his psychological calculations, he wasn’t schooled in the intricacies of managing a totalitarian state.” According to al-Arabiya TV, perhaps it is for this reason that none of the leaked emails contained messages from senior officials in the government, the ruling Baathist party, or even al-Assad’s family members such as his brother Maher, or his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who were not mentioned at all. This means that the regime’s official institutions do not use this particular email address to correspond with the president. Nevertheless, these emails can at least give us a brief view of a president who is detached from the current crisis in his country, and who is preoccupied with how to improve his stature and portray himself in a better light, without promoting a sense of weakness or having to retreat.

Bashar’s case is a complex one, he is obsessed by – and even believes in – his view of the situation, exactly as his adherers want him to see it. When reading what Bashar says, one recalls Al Pacino in the movie “Scarface”, where he played a gangster who strongly believed in his own destiny and his ability to overcome any crisis by displaying excessive challenging or confrontational behavior. Hence, the Syrian regime’s future seems to be a repetition of the tragedies of a gang that failed to confront its rivals and competitors. If you think that al-Assad is managing the crisis, you would be mistaken, because he is nothing more than a failed heir to a historic gang that has provoked hostilities with its opponents and rivals. Therefore, on the day that the al-Assad regime falls, Bashar al-Assad will remain standing alone, believing that both his destiny and his people are on his side.

Peter Harling, Project Director with the Middle East Program of the “International Crisis Croup”, told Agence France-Presse [AFP] that “the regime believes that the international community after a while will realise that it cannot be undone, that the pressure will relent and that the outside will reengage… when we throw envoys at them without a clear mandate, it further convinces them that they are doing the right thing “. According to “al-Hayat” newspaper, however, analysts believe that although Bashar al-Assad is in possession of military force that can crush the defectors’ strongholds, as happened recently in Homs and later on in Idlib, the regime has almost reached its end, and it is ultimately fighting a losing battle. Harling says “It’s a game of whack a mole”, whereby if the regime extinguishes a fire somewhere, a new fire erupts somewhere else. Will all-Assad understand the truth of what is going on? A former associate said: he [al-Assad] seems to be unaware of what is going on. He lives under an illusion that the regime’s adherers in the security apparatus have created for him. We may reach a stage whereby al-Assad is ousted, and nevertheless, he remains unaware of what is going on.

In a message Asma al-Assad sent to her husband in late December 2011 – indicative of the level of stress which the couple was facing at a time of intense international pressure being mounted on the regime to prompt it to end its violence – she said “If we are strong together, we will overcome this together …. I love you”.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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