Saturday, April 5, 2003

Bashar al-Assad Takes A Call From Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Bashar al-Assad sat in the ornate wood chair that was flecked with small semi-precious gems in the parlor of one of his palace suites in Damascus. Bashar was wearing casual beige slacks and a white shirt that was not tucked in. It appeared like he had stopped mid-stream while dressing to sit by the large blue land-line telephone that sat on the oak table in front of him. The table was a perfect square, and had identical chairs one each side, all empty but for Bashar's.
Bashar was young and fit but had a lot on his plate. He often felt like he was living in the shadow of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000. Bashar was born in 1965, and so was young in 2000 when he became President of Syria after the death of his father. Bashar did not want to be President. This privilege was meant for his older brother, Basil al-Assad. But Basil died in an automobile accident in 1994. Upon the death of his father, the Syrian Parliament quicky lowered the minimum age for the Office of Syrian President to 34 to accommodate the election of Bashar, who ran unopposed.
Bashar thought about his education. He was a doctor, having completed his medical degree at the University of Damascus, and his specialty in ophthalmology in London hospitals. Bashar spoke fluent French, English, Arabic and Farsi. Farsi was the language of Iran. And at the moment he was waiting for a call from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran. Bashar knew why Mahmoud was calling him. Mahmoud believed that the tide was shifting in the favor of Iran and Syria in world affairs, and wanted to make certain that Syria remained firmly on the Iranian mission of destroying Israel and preserving Hezbollah. Bashar hated the conversations with Mahmoud. Mahmoud never listened. Mahmoud preferred to speak and hear himself speak, like he was on some juggernaut that could not and should not be stopped. Mahmoud made Bashar nervous.
The telephone rang.

The telephone rang, and Bashar al-Assad adjusted himself in his chair to prepare for this call from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They were so different, Mahmoud and Bashar, thought Bashar. He viewed Mahmoud as an uncultured loudmouth who had the bad manners to assert the power of being the biggest bully in the playground. Mahmoud came from the street. Bashar came from royalty. Bashar had manners, and he was not personally disgusted by the thought of an Israeli state or Jews in general. He did not adopt the great Islamic mission that Mahmoud seemed to be on, a mission that Bashar feared was going to drag Arabs back to the middle ages.
On the fourth ring, Bashar picked up the phone.
"Hello," Bashar said in perfect Farsi.
"We have an opportunity to deliver several long range missiles to Syria to be trucked to Lebanon. The Israelis are for the moment shy about bombing moving vehicles," said Mahmoud. It was just like Mahmoud to bypass diplomatic pleasantries and launch into the purpose of his call.
"I am concerned about trucking missiles through my country," said Bashar.
"We will truck them on school buses. The Israelis will not strike school buses," said Mahmoud. Of course, Mahmoud ignored Bashar's hesitation.
"They are already using aircraft again," said Bashar.
"Just to support their troops. The missiles will be arriving tonight," said Mahmoud. Unbelievable, thought Bashar. The President of Iran was so presumptuous and had already sent the missiles. Bashar was insulted, but his diplomatic instinct told him to ignore his feelings.
"Maybe it is time to make a deal with the Israelis," said Bashar.
"Our people are suffering in Lebanon. It is time to make the Israelis and the Americans pay for their crimes. I am glad you agree," said Mahmoud.
What a jerk. As if Mahmoud was talking to a child. This was typical of Persians. For centuries they had always thought of themselves as better than Arabs, as more cultured, and smarter and wiser. It annoyed the shit out of Bashar, as it did other Arab leaders, but Mahmoud was so 'in your face' about everything he did. And his playground bully routine appealed to the Arab street, Allah only knows why.
"Where are the missiles being delivered?" asked Bashar.
"I do not have that information," said Mahmoud.
Liar. Mahmoud knew. He just did not trust Bashar.
“One more thing. Make an announcement that the Syrian Army is on high alert,” said Mahmoud.
“They are on high alert. It is a matter of caution,” said Bashar.
“Yes. But make the announcement. It will give the impression that the stakes are being raised,” said Mahmoud.
“I do not think that is wise,” said Bashar.
"I have to go. As a courtesy I wanted to let you know about the missiles. Make the announcement. May Allah be with you. God is great," said Mahmoud. The phone line clicked. Mahmoud had hung up.
Bashar placed the handset in its cradle. He had wished to evolve Syria into a modern state with culture and freedoms and capital investment. But events seemed to swoop him and his nation in directions not intended by Bashar. Bashar had put out feelers to the Americans, overtures to communicate that he wanted to deal and to move forward. But Bush was so deaf, ignoring every overture. In point of fact, Bashar would rather have a meal with an American than with an Iranian. But Bush had painted Bashar as a monster. And his country had pushed him to befriend Iran.
Bashar did not know if he should continue trying to make overtures to the Americans. Indeed, Bashar did not know what to do about the fast moving events and chaos. Indecision sapped Bashar of power. And power is what he needed right now. Power to act. Power to save his nation, and possibly the region. Power to stop Iran.