Extreme violence, explosions and death – all daily realities for many Syrians. But even as the United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed over the past 16 months in the ongoing unrest, Newsweek’s Janine Di Giovanni notes there’s another side to Syria – that of the country’s elite, largely unseen by the outside world.
CNN spoke earlier today with Giovanni, who takes a surprising look behind the backdrop of violent protests aimed at Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Following is an edited version of our conversation with her.
CNN: You spent a good amount of time in Syria and you were able to explore the lives of what turned out to be Syria’s elite. While you have that backdrop of violence, they were going about their business as usual. Describe what you saw and under what circumstances you saw this?
Janine Di Giovanni: Well, first I have to point out that this is a very small portion of the population, and I think in any regime, like Bashar al-Assad’s or Saddam Hussein’s before he fell, you will always find a certain sector that had money, that had the ability to party, in a sense, while the country is collapsing. And there’s also a sense of delusion that this isn’t going to happen to them.
I think that for many people in Syria, there’s a great fear of what will happen. And so even while this elite continue – or try to continue – with their lives, most are questioning what will come after this if Assad goes. When he does go, what will become of us? Will we have to go into exile? Will we have to flee to Lebanon or Paris? What will come next?
CNN: One viewer said “I don’t completely agree with Bashar al-Assad, but I don’t believe now is the time for change”…
Giovanni: One of the things I wanted to accomplish by going on the al-Assad side – and I had a government visa which is a very rare thing to get – was to get into the pro-Assad heads. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Do they believe massacres are happening? How do they view him as a leader? And you should remember that this is a country that’s monitored heavily. They’re followed. The secret police are everywhere. So people live in a state of fear. I think the people I spoke to, who range from Christian nuns to musicians to playwrights to writers, all seemed to have a fear of if the opposition wins, will there be a radical fundamentalist change? Now, this isn’t completely accurate, but many of them [also] say Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the opposition.
CNN: They weren’t necessarily government supporters, meaning they don’t necessarily work for the government. They don’t have special interests in the government, but they are private enterprise – they are independent workers?
Giovanni: Businessmen, people that have made money and live an extravagant or even just a wealthy life. And they’re wondering what will happen to them. And they’ve done well in some ways under the Assad regime. If a new regime comes in – or whoever does come in – they’re worried about what will happen to their lives. But most people are worried what will happen to them in an ordinary way – to their children, how they’ll continue to educate people.
CNN: You say they see Assad as a real guarantor of civility and you also write that “there is a deep sense of dread kept at bay by distraction and perhaps even delusion.” So is it an issue of delusion or denial, or is this kind of like a survival mechanism for some, who say, “we can either choose to live or we can choose to live in fear.”
Giovanni: Well, I’ve covered many wars and I have been in situations just before wars break out, and what I’ve observed is that people try to survive whatever way they can. Some people pick up their passports, their children, and they flee. They take their money out of the bank if it’s not too late already and they go. There are other people who don’t believe this could happen to their country. I interviewed many people – intelligent, educated people – who didn’t believe that Assad was killing his own people, that it wasn’t committed by government troops. So I think in a way many people do live in delusion.