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Peter Theo Curtis's Writing on The Twisted, Terrifying Last Days of Assad’s Syria

In the fall of 2012, while reporting from the Turkish/Syrian border, Peter Theo Curtis—who had been publishing under the name Theo Padnos for security purposes—disappeared. It wasn't until July 2013, when photojournalist Matthew Schier was released from captivity in Syria, that Americans could confirm those same captors were holding Curtis. This weekend Curtis was also released, and we can now present his writing under his real name. 

This article was originally published under the name Theo Padnos on October 4, 2011.

Many Damascenes these days prefer to watch the government-run TV stations. Elsewhere, the news is bad. The local channels, with local announcers, speaking in proper Syrian Arabic, are often sweet. Often the broadcasters on these stations are beautiful young women. They smile a lot. Their channels say that in some outlying districts, vandals and religious fanatics have moved in, and have had to be removed by the army. But now all is back to normal.

One cannot trade one’s Syrian pounds for dollars in Damascus anymore. One cannot travel to the outlying districts on Thursday nights without a local ID. But otherwise, life, for most people in most places, continues as normal. There have been no nationwide general strikes, no camp-ins, as in Yemen, and no major splits in the army, as in Libya. The buses run. The internet works, if slowly. The merchants who sell you pistachios still utter lovely phrases of piety and brotherhood, as they’ve always done, and if you tell people that you love Syria, and especially love the Syrian people, they will sometimes cry in front of you on the street.

Meanwhile the most blood curdling videos, filmed in Syria, run day and night on Al Jazeera. The army has clearly attacked parts of Homs and Latakia with tanks. Every now and then, even in Central Damascus, one hears shouting in the streets. The demonstrators chant, “He who won’t participate, he has no decency!” or “The people and the army are one!” The noise rises like a whirlwind from an alley, rattles the windows for a moment, and then dissipates into a neighboring block. Within minutes the streets are as they were before: hot and tense and quiet.

Many people one meets in Damascus suspect the West wishes to do to Syria what it did to Iraq and that only President Assad stands in the way of the next Operation Desert Storm. Many feel that the vandals the president is confronting out in the provinces will drag the country into a civil war if they’re not defeated now. When the admirers of the president meet, it doesn’t take much for them to see through the entire conspiracy: The foreign media, in combination with hostile governments, have worked a psy-ops campaign on the demonstrators. Now these dupes are throwing their lives away to no purpose. It’s sad perhaps, but order must be maintained.

You can live for days in Damascus having only conversations that follow this logic. After a while, you begin to feel that you have strayed into a magic kingdom and that everyone around you is living under a spell.

One Friday, during an especially restive period in July, I sat in a café in the old city while demonstrators were being murdered in the surrounding suburbs. In the café, the state TV, Syria One, showed old men in robes ambling away from afternoon prayers. A little later on, it showed a handful of youths pushing a dumpster about in a nearby suburb. “Five or six kids. They threw trash in the road and ran away. That’s all,” said one cafe patron to a waiter in a loud voice. And there it was, the Syrian magic trick at work: The TV had shown tranquil Friday afternoon scenes. Before our eyes, an empty passageway stretched toward Straight Street in one direction and the Omayed Mosque in the other. Somewhere far away, outside Syria, some “journalist” or “interest” or “element” was spreading rumors of 19 people killed and chaos in the streets. “Why do they do this?” the pro-government people in Syria want to know. “Why do they hate us?”

For their part, the demonstrators are often just as baffled. Recently, a video appeared on YouTube in which demonstrators in Hama tried to engage the army in a discussion. In the video, a clutch of young men stand before a government building, apparently occupied by snipers. Protestors have just been shot. “Hey! Those are our brothers you’re shooting,” they yell. “They’re your brothers.” Silence. “No one is shooting you, brother! What are you doing?” More silence. For a little while, the people in the street wander around in circles, clasping their heads. Then there is more shooting and the camera clatters to the ground.

Anyone who has spent time in Syria lately will recognize the silence that emanates from the government building in this video. This is the power governing Syria at the moment. If you encounter the security forces at a highway checkpoint, you’ll hear it as the officer in the leather jacket inspects your ID. Young men in civilian clothes are cradling machine guns behind him. No one says a word.

The silence is especially loud on Friday mornings in the squares surrounding the ministry of the interior. From 8:00 onward, police buses on their way to Kisweh, Medan, Qaboon, and wherever else protests are likely to flare up roll through these squares. The passersby in the street know that the bus passengers will soon be killing people, and that their weapons are loaded now. No taxis get in their way. The pedestrians stare at the pavement. The buses glide by like ships on a lake. No one wants to notice what the police are up to because noticing might attract notice. In any case, the buses no longer hold much mystery. The demonstrators will soon be chanting. They will soon be shot.

It is true that next Friday, they will clap and sing and carry on in the street, and that this is always a repudiation, among other things, of the silence. But the chanting will bring out the officers and the officers will bring out their rifles and the rifles, sooner rather than later, will restore the silence.

It would be interesting to know more about the ideology of those who are imposing this regimen of killing on their fellow citizens. Twenty-six hundred citizens, say the human rights organizations, have been killed so far, with no end in sight. Are the army units doing this in the name of religion?

Just about every observer who has analyzed the conflict in the western press—Robert Fisk in The Independent, Anthony Shadid in The New York Times, Malise Ruthven in The New York Review of Books—has reminded readers that beneath everything else in Syria, there lies the bitterness of the Sunni-Alawi rivalry. There are about three and a half million Alawis in Syria (out of a total population of 22 million). It will not do to impugn an entire religion, but those who’ve written about this topic do not fail to observe that the most influential positions in the army are occupied by Alawis, that the all-powerful mukhabarat, or secret service, is dominated at every level by Alawis, that Alawi officers have superintended every large-scale episode of killing in Syria in recent years (at the Tadmoor Prison in 1980, in Hama in 1982, and now in Deraa, and Hama again), and that the family which has been inflicting this variety of civic calm on Syria for the last 40 years has been an Alawi one.

I lived in Syria from 2007 to 2010 (and I have since returned three times, most recently this past June and July).When I first moved to the country, I had been reading the same writers everyone reads—Thomas Friedman, Patrick Seale, Robert Kaplan. As a student in a Sunni academy in Damascus, I could see right away that there was indeed an ominous force in the city, and that it didn’t dwell in the neighborhood mosques, but rather emanated from the higher spheres—the mountaintop palaces, the defense ministry, the interior ministry. That is to say, it emanated from the seats of Alawi power.

One of the first things one learns in such academies is that the secret police are everywhere. They drive the taxis, they pray next to you in the mosques, and they are listening to your phone conversations. The second thing one learns is that however affable the stranger next to you seems—and many are lovely—he will betray you. If the officer who betrays you is not himself an Alawi, he will turn you over to the superstructure of Alawite authority in Syria. Now you are in trouble. Is it because they often have light hair and blue eyes that other Syrians sometime refer to the Alawis as al Almaan—“the Germans”? Or is it because their blood is thought to run very cold?

As a student of Islam in Syria, you’re not supposed to pursue this line of questioning. You’re supposed to be afraid. I had Yemeni stamps in my passport. Yemen is a stronghold of the Sunnis. Try to get a new passport, I was told. I used to ride my bike through a neighborhood, near the president’s house, in which the mukhabarat stood on the street corners, day and night, surveilling the passing traffic. "Are you crazy?" people asked me.

Beards are an issue in Syria. If you have a bushy, pious religious-seeming one, you’re straightway identified as a Sunni. This can invite the attention of the mukhabarat. Ditto too much loafing in the mosque. Ditto religious clothing and language. “Hey whassup, sir. Wanna cigarette?” is an appropriate and safe way to greet someone who might work for the security services in Syria. The formula I learned in Yemen, “May Allah open the way for you, brother,” is dangerous.

Actually the student of Islam in Syria is in a strange position. Every day his teachers ask him to meditate on the power of almighty Allah, the king of all the worlds, and every day his teachers tremble before the mightier, more fearsome power of the Alawi. The teachers are positively transfixed. Nor will they explain the situation. Either they are too worried or they work for the secret police or some combination of these circumstances is at work.

Given all this, you can see why the think-piece writers often place the Sunni-Alawi divide at the center of their analyses. But their analyses are not quite correct. The dark force in Syria is not really a religious rivalry. It’s not a single family either. What might it be?

Anyone hoping to uncover the dark strain within Alawism by exploring the doctrines themselves will be disappointed. Maybe a better way to say this is, if you’re looking for a pleasant religion that harmonizes with the natural elements, this is the faith for you.

Alawis believe all humans were once stars, that by a seven-step process of metempsychosis, a pious soul can regain his place in the Milky Way and that impious souls come back as animals. Alawis celebrate the Zoroastrian holiday Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring, and sometimes celebrate Christmas. It’s not very Islamic to drink wine. It’s very un-Islamic to read esoteric meanings into the Koran. Alawis use wine in their rituals and believe that the manifest meaning of the Koran (and the Sharia) is a veil that covers truer, deeper meanings. Traditionally, Alawis have not built mosques but have rather prayed in the family home, or out of doors. They are said to worship the sun and the moon because these are aspects of the divine; the air, because god has dispersed himself into the ether; the stars, because one’s ancestors abide there; and the fourth Caliph, Ali, because he is the patron of their sect.

The religion emerged in the tenth century in a pocket of coastal mountains in northeastern Syria. These hills remain their homeland. When I first arrived in Syria, I was under the impression that if you walked up the right dirt roads in this alpine corner of the country, you would eventually come across villages in which the old faith flourished. I was under the impression that if you came on weekends you would spot the luxury sedans of regime apparatchiks who had driven up from Damascus. They would have come home to be among their own, to walk through the orchards for which the region is famous, and to renew their acquaintance with the stars. Whatever darkness there is within Alawism, I assumed, would make itself known to whoever studied Alawism here, among the cherry trees and the apparatchiks.

You cannot do this, it turns out. In the first place, Alawism is essentially a secret. It doesn’t proselytize as Sunni Islam does but rather selects its initiates from the male children of Alawite families, and only from those deemed worthy of instruction. In the second place, Alawism doesn’t exist anymore.

Perhaps some ethnologist will yet discover traces of it in a valley somewhere, but, these days, Alawis in Syria describe their beliefs in the same terms Sunni Muslims use. They believe in a single god, that one should pray to Mecca (never to the sun), and that Christmas is for Christians. One’s ancestors, for their part, are in their graves, awaiting the day of judgment, which is where Sunni Islam believes them to be. It’s true that you hear rumors of still-extant Alawi rites now and then, but it’s hard to find anyone who takes these ceremonies seriously. “The ‘initiation ritual’ of male Alawis into the religion consists of kissing a few hands and memorizing a seriously ridiculous script in a small memo book,” wrote a blogger calling himself “Khudr” recently on the website Syria Comment:

"Frequently, one is given the script without his 'teacher' or initiator ever bothering to see afterwards whether you memorized it or not. Most of the time your 'initiator' knows that your opinion of the whole process and the script is as high as your opinion of 'Tom & Jerry' cartoons."

It might seem unfair to accuse the most famous Alawi of them all, Hafez Al Assad, of killing Alawism, but he is almost certainly the guilty party. More than any other bit of evidence, his motive damns him. When he assumed control of the country in 1971, he came with visions of a Baathist utopia shining in his eyes. He needed three and a half million ultra-loyal, ultra-motivated helpers to persuade the Sunnis (74 percent) and the Christians (10 percent) to love the Baathists. The variety of ultra-loyalism Hafez Al Assad valued precluded loyalty to a religious sect. The solution: Cancel Alawism. If the Alawis wanted a religious identity, Hafez Al Assad declared, they could very well be Sunnis.

In 2005, a Syrian dissident, “Karfan,” at the website Syria Exposed, described Assad’s program of “Sunnifaction.” “The extreme policy,” he wrote, “took the shape of so many aspects that everybody here [in Syria] knows very well”:

"Introducing only pure Sunni Islam education to all schools; Banning any public manifestation or even mentioning of any Alawie religious activities; Banning and oppressing any Alawie religious organizations or any formation of a unified religious council or a higher religious authority; … Building Sunni-style mosques in every little Alawite village and encouraging people to perform the pilgrimage."

When I'm in Syria, I often wonder if it’s possible to cancel a religion. In the day time, when police officers might be watching, I ask polite questions of strangers, and I suppose that it must be. At night, I ask other questions—or sometimes I just sit in a dark cafe and listen to rumors—and then I know no one has cancelled Alawism, nor is the idea plausible. The faith lives on. It has mutated under the Assads, and isn’t seen in the open—but then it has always been a secret religion.

Last summer, I had a conversation with a neighbor in Damascus who told me the following story: In 1994, Basil Al Assad, Hafez’s eldest son, was an internationally renowned horseman, a natural leader among his fellows in the army, and the favored child (among five) in the Assad family. No one doubted he would someday rule the country. When he drove his Mercedes into a bridge abutment in January of that year, the Alawis of Syria were shocked into a kind of delirium. For three days the country stopped working, and only recordings of the Koran played on state TV. Schools and hospitals lost their old names and became Basil the Martyr Primary School, Basil the Martyr Eye and Ear Clinic, and so forth. Not long after Basil’s death, a group of young Alawis invaded a cemetery on Baghdad Street, near my neighbor’s house in Damascus. They made for the section reserved for the pilots and soldiers who’d been killed in the wars with Israel—the martyrs plot—and proceeded to smash up the headstones. They destroyed the grave markers of the Sunni and Alawi martyrs alike. My neighbor explained: The Alawi faithful couldn’t abide the thought that Basil would have to share the level of heaven on which martyrs dwell with other, lesser beings.

Recently, reports of incidents similarly tinged with religious feeling have been filtering into Damascus—for instance: Sunni detainees, shot by the Shabeeha, pro-Bashar vigilantes, for refusing to render the Islamic testament of faith as, “there is no god but Bashar,” or for refusing to prostrate themselves over portraits of the president. In Homs, according to some reports, the Alawis have erected a death zone around a minor statue of Hafez Al Assad, and have been shooting those they suspect of approaching this totem with ill intentions.

This is exceptional behavior, of course. In normal times, the Assad worshipers have simply built up their cult in silence, without making a show of their activities. As “Khudr” also observed in his Syria Comment piece, this was important spiritual work for them. Hafez Al Assad’s urging them to behave like Sunnis had the effect of setting them adrift in Syria. Now this obscure sect, formerly confined to the mountains near Latakia, was in need of a home. It turned out that employment in a totalitarian regime accommodated them nicely:

"The only meeting ground or assembly point for Alawis, where we didn’t have to pretend that we were something we weren’t, was deep in the inner sanctums of the security state. We found ourselves in the clubby security of the secret services, the Republican Guard, the army officer academies, and the worker and agricultural syndicates in the coastal area. These were all regime sanctioned and established institutions that linked our identity to the security state and Assad rule."

Until his death in 2000, Hafez Al Assad worked at bringing the rest of Syria along. Perhaps he didn’t give his fellow citizens much choice in the matter. In any case, he was a charismatic leader. He controlled a powerful police force. His Baath Party utopia was no paradise, but for 40 years the sects have been at peace, and no outside power has invaded or threatened to invade. Every morning for three generations, the nation’s schoolchildren have risen to hail Syria as the “sacred sanctuary of the Arabs” (the first lines of the national anthem) and “the abode of the stars” (a succeeding line).

Many millions of people in Syria continue to believe in the sacredness of this sanctuary. Many millions continue to believe that the people who have led the country for the last 40 years are themselves sacred.

This doesn’t require the mental gymnastics it might seem, from abroad, to require. Walk into almost any restaurant in any neighborhood in Damascus and there they are, in pastel, against a black background, with faint evening clouds in the distance: the dead Basil, the dead father, and the surviving brother Bashar. These are Syria’s patron saints. They are often depicted in aviator glasses (Hafez was a pilot), and always Hafez and Basil appear to hover over the shoulders of Bashar, like angels from beyond the grave. The effect is meant to be a little spiritual and a little spooky. It does add a jarring note to the dining experience, I’ve found.

Then again, these displays are not meant for foreigners. They are meant to suggest, especially to children, that the Assads breathe a finer air than ordinary Syrians. See the deep blue in the eyes of those heroes? See the ethereal clouds amongst which they live? Here is a family that enjoys a friendly relationship with providence.

Somehow, especially in the early years, Hafez kept this illusion intact. The rest of the agreement he established with the Syrian people followed naturally from this premise. Political life, under this agreement, was to be simple: There would be none. There would be the Baath Party, period. Military life would also be simple: There would be compulsory military service, and a permanent enemy (“our neighbor”) to the south. Members of all sects could flourish in this army, and everyone would be equal. Alawis, however, would be more equal. They would be known to the ruling family though networks of cousinship. All sensitive positions would be reserved for cousins.

As for the religious feelings of the Sunni: Religious feelings were unseemly. To keep the nation on an even keel, the mosques would be visited, that is to say, spied upon, by believers in the state. These would be Alawis, naturally. Their job would be to dress and bow and utter normal Islamic prayers, while keeping notes on those who uttered theirs too fervently.

As for the mosque preachers: Those who deviated from the pray-five-times-a-day, stay-away-from-politics, wait-for-heaven variety of Sunni Islam would no longer preach. If they went nicely, they could go home. If not, there were other methods.

As for Muslims who refused to behave as citizens in the kingdom of the Assads ought to behave: In 1980 and 1981, rumors of strengthening religious feeling in the northern cities of Jisr as Shugour and Hama filtered into Damascus. Rifaat Al Assad, Hafez’s brother, then the chief of the security apparatus, leveled these towns. The result was perhaps 10,000 dead, perhaps 40,000. No one knows. More recently, the Republican Guard of Bashar’s younger brother, Maher, has had to enforce Hafez’s truce with the Sunni majority with great strictness. Sunni women have been shot through facial veils and left to die among bags of leaking trash. Sunni boys in the custody of the police have been tortured to death, their faces beaten, their genitals removed. When the bodies of dead demonstrators have been returned to their parents, so neighbors tell me, the police have exacted a promise: The funerals must be private. If they attract demonstrations—and hullabaloo and chanting for god—more people might be shot in the face.

The dark force in Syria is not the Alawi religion. It’s not exactly the cult of Hafez Al Assad, either. Only the aged and the infirm refuse to acknowledge his death. But love for the sacred sanctuary he invented, the one protected by the blue-eyed family of pilots and horsemen, has not died. The dark force in Syria is excessive belief in this realm of unreality. All those people who served in its police force, killed on its behalf, and kept the silence while the killing was going on carry its banner. This species of belief is a non-denominational phenomenon. It is enforced by the Alawis but Sunnis—and Kurds and Christians—are most welcome. For the time being, it is holding fast.

Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the protestors have faced a dilemma: How is it possible to void an agreement one makes with the Assads? Much of the power of this agreement derives from the fact that it was never written down but rather exists only in the mind. It is also powerful because it insists that it never be spoken about. “Your eyes on the ground!” is a phrase every Syrian learns as a toddler. It’s not so easy to repudiate what you can only feel. Also, the pact has been in operation for 40 years. Most of the demonstrators in the streets have never lived under any other dispensation. It’s not so easy to insist that the government give way to an alternate reality one has heard about from friends who went on an exchange program to Paris.

Perhaps the first step in overturning one’s parents’ agreements is to stop revering them so much. One of the most rapidly spreading demonstration chants has been a simple expression of collective self-confidence. “No more fear, no more fear,” the crowds call out after their prayers, “after today, no more fear!” More recently, the demonstrators have been giving voice to the indignation that Muslims ought to feel (do feel) in the presence of a personality cult. No, they refuse to worship Assad, they say in this chant: “Heyyy yallah! We only bow to Allah.” It has now been made into a pop song.

It was probably inevitable that the protestors would one day come to the heart of the matter. Everyone knows that the chief architect of life today in Syria is not the current president, but rather a spirit, eleven years dead, whose body now lies in a picturesque Alawi village along Syria’s coast. How to get at this thing? The latest popular song to sweep the world of the demonstrators has them sending a thousand congratulations to the revolutionaries of Libya, then promising Bashar that his turn is next, and then raising their voices into an emotion-filled crescendo: “Ohhh, oh Hafez!” they sing. “Ohhh Hafez, god curse your soul! Ohhh Hafez, god curse your soul!”

One of Assad's most astute opponents is the cartoonist Ali Ferzat, whose gallery at the Square of the Seven Seas in Damascus is still, somehow, open for business. In late August, he was involved in a confrontation with unknown parties in which his hands were broken, his face beaten, and he himself deposited on the airport highway, outside of Damascus. This is a cartoonist who knows how to get under the skin of the regime.

Almost always he depicts Bashar A Assad as a tiny man, lost within a giant military uniform. Earlier in the summer, Ferzat had this non-entity staring into the workings of a vast and shadowy padlock. In the cartoon, the president has the key in his hand, but it’s enormous and he’s too diminutive a personage to do anything with it. He is rather on the verge of being swallowed up by the darkness (A metaphor for the elite military units? For the last four decades of life in Syria? For the Assad family’s history?).

Perhaps someone with a stronger sense of personal identity could resist, but Bashar is the child of a man who vitiated the religious and personal identity of an entire nation. It’s probably safe to assume that Hafez did a number on his own kids.

If Bashar Al Assad is going to survive the current unrest he will need, in the first place, new media advisors. On Sunday, August 21, as Libyan revolutionaries were pouring into Tripoli, they put him in a living room with two interviewers from state TV. The quietness of the setting brought out his lisp, his too-small chair brought out his school-boy awkwardness, and the subservience of the interviewers somehow encouraged his habit of trying too hard to be the self-composed sovereign, the cause of all causes in Syria. Let no one assume that I was not born to lead in a time of crisis, he tried to say with his demeanor of ultra-calm self-confidence.

Early in the interview, he spoke of Syria’s geographical “position,” by which he meant its proximity to Israel. If NATO were to attack Syria, he would bring out Syria’s weaponry, “some of which they [NATO] don’t know about,” and this would produce a “result” which they (the West? Israel? who?) could not bear. His tone of voice was soft, almost sleepy. He was invoking a potential apocalypse. Did he have any notion of what he was suggesting? It seemed he hadn’t given much thought to the issue.

Performances like this tend to remind audiences in Syria of what Bashar Al Assad wanted to be when he had the choice: There was an ophthalmologist’s career in London in the offing, a pretty English wife, and a string of healthy Anglophone children.

The balance of the interview couldn’t have been good for Assad’s career. For five months now, the elite military units have been fanning out across Syria, roaming the countryside, entering cities at will, killing the inhabitants, and, by the way, filming themselves doing so. Ten thousand of the most unspeakable videos on YouTube accuse him, as do Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Sarkozy, and King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia (who never accuses anyone). The people he most needs to speak with, the demonstrators, no longer have any interest in talking to him. Their latest chant: “Not a word! No discussion! Get away from us, o Bashar!”

“We are at a transitional stage,” said the president in his interview. He spoke for 45 minutes about the reviews he planned for the constitution. Would Article Eight be reviewed on its own or would the review of this plank, which ensures single party rule, be part of a more comprehensive review?

He hadn’t decided. He had, however, committed to “a path of political reform” from “the first weeks of the demonstrations.” As the chief politician, he was leading the nation along this path. Yes, there were armed gangs who were trying to assert their own agenda. He had delegated the task of dealing with them, he said, to the appropriate institutions. “The political solution,” he repeated several times, “is the only one for Syria.”

As the president spoke, the interviewers didn’t bat an eye, but everyone in Syria knows that the snipers on the rooftops are themselves the political solution. Their commanders decide which cities to attack; they themselves decide who lives and who dies. The more they shoot, the more they drive Syria into the abyss.

If the president had been willing to speak about the doings of these troops—which mosque will they surround tomorrow? which cities will they attack?—the larger public in Syria might have watched this interview. But as everyone there knows, the institutions to which the president referred are not quite his own. They operate under the control of the president’s younger brother, Maher, and a coterie of ultra-loyal generals who have served the Assad family since the current president was a child. The president controls politics; these people control the nation.

By discoursing on constitutional reviews and committee processes, the president made it seem as though he didn’t understand that these have no relevance any longer. By refusing to acknowledge the power the snipers exercise over the nation, he made it seem as though he didn’t care or didn’t know what was happening in the streets.

The truth is that in each of Bashar Al Assad’s four public appearances since the beginning of the uprising in March, he has exhibited exactly this cluelessness. By now, the public has accepted it. The president inhabits another planet. Who cares?

A nation teetering on the edge of civil war does not need or want a weakened, irrelevant president. Maher and the generals of 40 years tenure surely know this. When Assad falters on national TV, the country looks leaderless. When it looks leaderless, the demonstrators are encouraged. This prompts Maher and the generals to grasp after greater control of the cities. When they grasp, the president must appear on TV to say that it is he, after all, who stands at the head of the political system. The more he makes irrelevant points like this, the more the country’s confidence in him deteriorates. This isn’t just a media advisor problem. There is something of the death spiral in the current scenario. Maher awaits.

Almost everyone in Syria believes that Bashar Al Assad has an escape plan. One of the funnier videos now circulating on YouTube uses the trick of combining footage from the German film Der Untergang with Arabic subtitles. On the German soundtrack in the film, Hitler, living through his final hours in his bunker, is berating his generals. The Arabic subtitles in the clip have him saying: “None of you donkeys matters at all! The important thing is that no one be permitted to upload any videos onto YouTube! No pictures, either!” And so on.

The joke isn’t that Assad has come unwound, as Hitler has in the movie. No one in Syria thinks that he obsesses over troop movements in his concrete bunker. People do think, however, that he no longer controls the streets, that he rambles to no apparent end, as Hitler does in the movie, and that his world his closing in on him. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Syrians are beginning to wonder: How will the drama end?

The clip-satire suggests a happy denouement. As shells shake the bunker, the camera cuts to a pretty secretary, listening at the office door, who bears a vague resemblance to Assad’s wife, Asma. She is whispering to a friend. “Don’t worry,” say the Arabic subtitles. “We are UK nationals. When this is over, we’ll escape to Britain.”

Many Syrians believe that Asma has already retreated to London. The peaceful way to resolve the trouble in Syria would involve Bashar taking the cue, giving up, and going home to his family. I have come to this point in the discussion several times in Damascus, sitting around a shisha pipe in a café. Whenever we arrive here, the shisha sippers tell me that even if the president admits such fantasies into his private thoughts, neither Maher, nor the elderly generals, nor the wider community of Alawis will allow him to live them out. In this sense, he is alone and trapped. “God should have mercy on his soul,” say the shisha sippers.