Monica Maggioni, head of Italy's Rai news service, recounts her meeting this week with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad inside his private Damascus villa: "He looks nothing like the defeated leaders of this era."
DAMASCUS — He's the most controversial man in the world, the most talked about president. He was supposed to get bombed by the Americans, until the operation was called off at the last minute. He's also the No. 1 target for ISIS, other regime opponents and several neighboring countries.
In spite of all that, and after four years of war, he still lives in a bourgeois neighborhood of Damascus. No bunker or underground hideout: The 50-year-old Bashar al-Assad spends part of his day here in the center of town, amidst nondescript, mostly gray buildings, tidy apartments and balconies with long lines of laundry out to dry. His villa is just a tad bigger than those next door.
We expected to meet him at the palace, as the Italian Rai television crew had for another exclusive interview two years ago. We had an appointment by the massive edifice on top of the hill, at the end of a well-kept boulevard with perfectly trimmed trees that line gardens bereft of flowers.
There's no more traffic in this little section of world up here, secured by checkpoints. Down below, at the foot of the hill, the old city moves about in an attempt at normalcy. It's as though an island had survived in the middle of a war zone. Veiled women with plastic shopping bags and girls wearing makeup, their hair loose, check out the few clothes on display in shop windows. Almost no one is at the cafés, and a mere fraction of past crowds can be seen on the streets of the old bazaar.
The residents of the microcosm of central Damascus pretend their life is acceptable, knowing very well that the Russians and French are bombing Raqqa; that a car-bomb could go off any moment; and that normality, the real kind, has long since vanished. Only a kilometer away, the black flags of ISIS flutter about. Everyone left has friends and neighbors who have fled to seek a new life in Europe or elsewhere.
We thought we would see Assad, up there, isolated and distant in the presidential palace. Only when we reach the top of the semi-deserted hill do we understand that this isn't going to be our final destination: These days, only a part of the president's staff is on duty there, so the meeting with the president is to take place in the city. We proceed back down to the downtown streets, the ones with the parked cars, the woman with a shopping bag, and two elderly people who are entering the lobby of Dr. Sharis Hospital.
An almost British air
A few steps, several guards, a barrier and that's it. No other security mechanism. We're in front of the white stairway that leads to Assad's house. He steps towards us with a relaxed smile.
There's a certain British ease about his mannerisms. He inquires about how things are going in Italy, work, politics. It takes effort to remember that we're in Damascus, in the middle of a war, speaking with Bashar al-Assad. And yet there we are.
He asks me to come up to the first floor for a few minutes, while downstairs, a small army of technicians is preparing the interview set for Rai correspondent Marco Clementi. We're able to discuss what's going on, what this piece of history looks like from Damascus. Assad believes that three key factors — which two years ago seemed likely to bring about a total collapse of Syria — have contributed to the current scenario, for better or for worse: ISIS's emergence as a global threat, Iran's reappearance at the international diplomatic table, and Putin's military interventions.
He's very clear about ISIS: "It can still be eradicated, it still hasn't penetrated deeply in Syrian society, but the risk is great. If they stay here for a while longer, we will not be able to get rid of them."
He finds Western policies that destabilized the region — such as the occasional support of armed rebel groups, with scant concern for the consequences — incomprehensible. "Al-Qaeda was created by the Americans, using Wahabi ideology and Saudi money. ISIS and al-Nusra are a direct result of al-Qaeda," he says, adding that Putin's intervention is the only thing keeping a lid on the situation.
Downstairs they're still setting things up, and the president appears to be in no hurry to end our conversation. He says that all too frequently in the past few years, global discussions of Syria have focused entirely on him, ignoring the fact that from the outset of the war, in such Syrian towns as Daraa and Homs, extremist groups were infiltrating the country.
I look at him and search for what he may not want to say out loud. But Assad appears naturally pragmatic as he explains that many people, especially in rural areas, joined the jihadi battle is a way to escape poverty, or to control territory, and he is negotiating with them on ways to take land away from the terrorists.
This, however, is a sign of change. Two years ago his position was very different. Back then, he said he would never negotiate with those who joined the fight. Now it seems that there is far more room for compromise.
Who knows if he will decide to leave. Someone knocks on the door. It's his media assistant. A few years ago, she was one of Al Jazeera's top news anchors, and then she left, because her country needed her. She tells us to come downstairs.
As I follow him to the floor below, I can't help but think that he looks nothing like the defeated leaders of this era. He's nothing like the crazed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, still theorizing about victory when he had plainly been defeated. He's not the Iraqi minister of information saying, "The Americans will never reach Baghdad," with V corps tanks rolling by in the background. It's a whole different situation here, and one that's difficult to understand, full of contradictions.
One thing is certain: This villa in central Damascus offers a singular vantage point to try to shed light on one of the most complex times in modern history. It comes with its share of optical illusions: From up here, the war below seems remote, with the tallest buildings hiding all the destruction and the Caliphate's black flags. All of it, just a few kilometers away.
*Monica Maggioni is director of Rai News.