In his first session with reporters since Amnesty International published a report accusing his government of human rights atrocities against political dissidents, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad said he would immediately step aside if he lost an election.
“If the Syrian people choose another president, I don’t have to choose to be aside; I would be aside,” Assad told Belgian reporters in Damascus, according to a transcript published by the state news agency SANA.
The interview touches most of the major topics Assad addresses in regular interviews: His insistence that the United States aided the Islamic State, his cautious optimism towards President Donald Trump, and his assurances that he will step down if Syrian people want him to. The latter he reiterated in response to a reporter who noted that, as someone in their 40s, they have never lived through a period in which Syria was not governed by an Assad. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000.
“We don’t own the country, my family doesn’t own the country,” Bashar told the reporter. “President Assad didn’t have an heir in the institution to be his successor,” he said of his father, noting that he was working as an ophthalmologist during his father’s term, not in the Syrian government. “He died, I was elected, he didn’t have anything to do with my election,” Assad insisted. “When he was president, I didn’t have any position in the government. If he wanted me to be an heir, he would have put me somewhere, gave me a responsibility.”
Assad was reelected to the presidency in 2014 with 88.7 percent of the national vote, in an election that a number of international observers, including then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, called a “sham.” The election occurred as Syria entered its third year of civil war, and many of the most war-torn areas of the nation were not equipped with the proper tools to hold a free and fair election. The areas most affected by the war were rebel-held areas like the city of Homs, meaning those most likely to vote against Bashar were also likeliest to live in areas where they could not vote.
Assad’s assertion that he would leave the presidency if he lost an election is not new. A month ago, he told reporters he was willing to negotiate “everything” to end the Syrian civil war, even his position as head of state. Reports have circulated for years that even Assad’s allies have attempted to persuade him to hold elections, however, with no action out of Damascus. Assad’s claims that Syria is “much better than before” the civil war also fail to lend credence to the idea that his claim of being comfortable with leaving office is sincere.
Assad has reason to once again make public claims that he believes in democracy, however, thanks to a new Amnesty International report published this week. The report focuses on the activities in Seydnaya prison between 2011 and 2015 when the group claims Syrian officials hanged 13,000 people and tortured countless others. The report details extreme violence including guards forcing prisoners to rape each other for their amusement, severe beatings, and being lied to about their death sentences until shortly before hanging. The report concludes these activities occurred with permission from the head of state.
Assad did not address human rights concerns in his discussion with journalists this week. He instead reiterated his claims that the European Union and NATO are “destroying Syria,” that the United States had “bad intentions” with Syria upon aiding rebels trying to topple the Assad regime, and that he is willing to work with the Trump White House.