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The Butcher of Damascus opera - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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“The Barber of Seville” is considered one of the world’s most foremost operas. This story was written by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais and then developed into an opera by Italian composer Rossini. However, political history has witnessed a new use of the opera house. Where once these stages served as the home of fine arts and grand performances, the opera house has now become a place for slander and defamation, as witnessed in Bashar al-Assad’s most recent speech. In fact, this was not the first time that Bashar al-Assad has desecrated a stage as prestigious as that of the Damascus Opera House, for he did this previously when he delivered a similar speech at Damascus University.

In any case, al-Assad’s most recent speech was prepared with great care and attention to detail. This speech was clearly directed at the west, particularly as it preceded the Putin-Obama summit to discuss the adoption of Brahimi’s initiative and the Geneva agreement regarding the transitional period in Syria. Thus, al-Assad sought to put forward a carefully prepared “portrait” of himself and his regime to serve as mental vision prior to that vital summit. An opera house is a place designed with acoustics in mind, being constructed from materials that should help produce significant audial resonance and therefore transmit exaggeratedly loud sounds. As a result of this, any sounds of cheering, clapping and applause were magnified. Similarly, al-Assad’s audience was very carefully selected to reflect the mosaic of Syrian society, with all its different backgrounds, sects and classes. Al-Assad’s audience included veiled women (to reflect the Islamic religious trend), as well as figures wearing traditional Arab headdress (to reflect the tribal presence) in addition to army officers, youths, students and retirees; all of whom enthusiastically applauded and cheered the speech.

Bashar al-Assad entered the carefully prepared stage where even the lighting was calculated. Whilst the huge screen behind him showed pictures of what he claimed were victims of the violence in Syria, with these pictures forming a mosaic depicting the Syrian flag. Of course, his speech was continually interrupted by over-the-top applause and hysterical cheering before ending with the audience conducting a mad rush to the stage to hug and kiss the Syrian president, in scenes more reminiscent of a rock concert!

Of course, al-Assad’s rhetoric and oratorical style remained unchanged with the Syrian president continuing to make the most slanderous accusations against the rebels and even denying the existence of a revolution. He said that a revolution must have conditions, thinkers, tools and targets before it can be called a revolution, as if he were ordering from a menu! Al-Assad continued to adopt the discourse of denial and impossible demands, placing impossible conditions on everyone except himself and his criminal regime. He even, hilariously, called for “dialogue’ with the opposition, which is something that nobody can accept or even take seriously. Many people doubted that this speech was broadcast “live”, as claimed on the screen, particularly as Damascus’s roads had been shut down since the early hours of the day. Even Reuters said that it doubted that the speech was broadcast live, adding that this speech was most likely pre-recorded and then broadcast at a later time. Bashar al-Assad is continuing the rule of his father Hafez al-Assad; he is utilizing the same discourse, reflecting a practical embodiment of the ideas of Hafez al-Assad, namely either he remains as president or he will burn the country to the ground.

This is a “doctrine”, not a policy. The Syrian president and those around him are completely convinced that Syria is al-Assad and al-Assad is Syria and that there is therefore no way to talk to one without the other. There were also certain statements and words in Bashar al-Assad’s speech that contained implicit signals and messages. He thanked all his allies, from the Shabiha militia to the states and institutions that have backed him. He also stressed that Syria is “united”, as if suggesting that division is on the horizon and will indeed be forcibly imposed by a regime that will cling onto power until the last Syrian citizen has been killed.

Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were two tyrants and killers who in their final days appeared standing before thugs and supporters to convince the world that they were in control of the situation and enjoyed popular support. However they seemed to have forgotten that their status was closer to that of the Titanic whose captain and officers refused to acknowledge the gravity of the catastrophe even as the ship was sinking!

Bashar al-Assad’s theatrical and operatic speech was not only full of comic material, it is something that will one day be studied by students of psychology and government. This is because al-Assad’s state of denial, as exhibited in this speech, is completely unprecedented. Therefore the new opera on the scene is called the “Butcher of Damascus”, remember it well!

Hussein Shobokshi

Hussein Shobokshi

Hussein Shobokshi is a businessman and prominent columnist. Mr. Shobokshi hosts the weekly current affairs program Al-Takreer on Al-Arabiya, and in 1995 he was chosen as one of the "Global Leaders for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum. He received his BA in Political Science and Management from the University of Tulsa.

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