Assad: A New Era Is Emerging in The Arab World

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Leaders across the Arab world are watching the protests in Egypt carefully. Jay Solomon, of The Wall Street Journal, talks to Steve Inskeep about his recent interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're continuing to follow the protests in Egypt, and rest assured, so are leaders across the Arab world. One of the reasons that this is such a huge story is that like Egypt, many, many Arab nations have autocratic rulers who have been in power for decades and are watching to see what happens next.

Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal has spoken with one of those leaders, Bashar al-Assad, who is the ruler of Syria, as his father was before him. He's in Damascus, Syria.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JAY SOLOMON (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So how worried is the president of Syria right now?

Mr. SOLOMON: You know, I think he comes across as pretty calm and confident. He definitely says a new era seems to be emerging in the Arab world, and he was very clear that he thought Arab leaders must do much more to listen to their people. I guess where he positions himself is that he was saying most of the governments that are being targeted are pro-Western, you know, they were allied with the U.S. on policies in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that Syria has been, you know, of the Arab states, the most anti-American on a lot of these policies. They've been the most you know, they're still in conflict with Israel, and because that, his regime will be safe and that he has cover.

I think, obviously, people have questioned, because a lot of the unrest in Egypt doesn't seem to be driven by foreign policy issues. It's more economic or issues of democracy. So that still remains to be seen, but he was very engaging on these things. He was not sort of evasive, and he took it on pretty straight forward.

INSKEEP: Well, Bashar al-Assad has certainly tried to position himself as being a relatively moderate guy, or even a reforming guy. That's at least the position that he has taken, but it is a very autocratic country. Once he gets done confidently saying that he doesn't expect the protest to spread to his country, is he talking about any kinds of reforms of his own?

Mr. SOLOMON: I mean, he is. He was pretty specific, saying he wants to initiate municipal elections and new legislation that, you know, from NGOs and a new media law. I think a lot of people who have watched Syria closely in the human rights group are pretty skeptical. They said he - when he came into power just before 9/11, he was promising similar things, and none of them never really bore out.

He was very specific in the interview, saying, well, a lot of what I was hoping to do was hindered by the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, efforts to destabilize Syria, which is true. I mean, they were not the Bush administration was not quiet about that they thought Syria might follow Iraq. What is unclear is if things are calmer, if the situation in Lebanon and Iraq are calmer, it will push forward with a more aggressive reform period. That I think there's skepticism, but that's what he was saying.

INSKEEP: Mr. Solomon, in the few seconds we have left, do you have a sense of whether Bashar al-Assad is a popular leader on the streets of Damascus, or whether he could potentially face protests like we've seen in other countries?

Mr. SOLOMON: I think it's really hard. I mean, it's that people here are glued. If you go around the old city and everyone's watching Al-Jazeera and watching the Egypt thing, but the people we've talked to, they don't really translate what's going on to anything happening here. I mean, that's the sense right now. I guess things can change, and there's been some Facebook pages, comments about protests. But having only been here, flown in from Washington a few days ago, you certainly don't sense that there's much agitation. But what's - what we've seen, things do change.

INSKEEP: Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal is in Damascus, Syria. Thanks very much.

Mr. SOLOMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He spoke with Syria's president Bashar al-Assad.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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