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Driving With Assad: Syria’s President Tours a Destroyed Suburb

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the video, he’s a soft-spoken man in a blue suit and reflective sunglasses piloting his silver Honda through a traffic circle.

The driver happens to be President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and he is taking viewers on a leisurely drive into the heart of his country’s civil war.

“We’re going to Ghouta to see the situation,” he says calmly in a video posted online by his office. “We’ll see the armed forces that are fighting and the areas that have been liberated.”

For weeks, the international news media have been filled with horrifying images from Syria: wounded children being treated in makeshift hospitals; lines of dead bodies wrapped in white shrouds; throngs of refugees fleeing as the Syrian government’s military offensive in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

This week, the government hit back with a series of videos showing Mr. Assad visiting the area to congratulate his forces and shake hands with cheering residents, some of whom held up their children so he could kiss them on the cheek.


“You are the sons of our country,” he said in one video. “We will protect all the people of Ghouta.”

In bypassing the news media, Mr. Assad delivered an alternative view of the war, one in which he is assured and in charge, casually cruising past bombed-out buildings, often driving with just two fingers, an elbow propped casually out the window. It is a world in which his opponents are all terrorists and his troops all heroes.

Government airstrikes hit eastern Ghouta on Monday.
Government airstrikes hit eastern Ghouta on Monday.

“In these areas, every meter has a drop of blood from a Syrian fighter,” he says in one video. “A hero among heroes.”

While other Arab leaders have aggrandized themselves with great wealth or military parades, Mr. Assad has cultivated a man-of-the-people image, a Syrian Everyman who loves his country and its people. In his simple Honda sedan, he speaks to an unidentified videographer documenting him from the passenger seat, with no other aides or security measures visible to the camera.

In 2016, he paid a similar visit to another Damascus suburb, Daraya, after his forces had starved and bombed its rebellious population into submission. In that video, he drove a silver Hyundai.

This time, as he drives by a line of buildings destroyed in combat, he speaks of feeling a mix of pride in the advances of his forces and of sadness for what the war had done to civilians, especially children.

“The thing that is painful is to see is people who were forced without a choice because of the war, because of the terrorists, to leave their homes and to live for days in open areas,” he said.

He does not hint at his own role in the war, his forces’ history of inflicting tremendous violence and the costs to civilians his painful sieges have exacted on rebel-held areas. In eastern Ghouta, about 1,500 civilians have been killed since the Syrian government began its campaign to take the area last month, and some 20,000 civilians have fled in recent days. Witnesses have described scenes of families bombarded by government warplanes and artillery as they tried to flee, leaving the wounded lying in the street.

There were no scenes like that in Mr. Assad’s video. At one stop, he spoke to a crowd of soldiers, telling them that they were playing a crucial role in a global battle against terrorists.

“Each bullet that you fire, when you hit a terrorist, when you get rid of a terrorist, you are changing the world system,” he said, as the booms of an ongoing battle punctuated his speech. Every tank driver who goes one meter forward, he is changing the map of world politics.”