July 11th, 2012
04:46 PM ET

Syria's detached and deluded elite?

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.

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Topics: Arab Spring • Syria

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soundoff (68 Responses)
  1. Harry Callahan

    and all the while, they go to prayer, eat camel steaks, shove chocolate down their fat children's throats and go shopping for new shoes or a purse.
    Just like the old Roman era.
    The smart ones have moved their families to France, England, Spain...
    The ones still there, well....

    July 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • Nina

      That’s a clown question, bro!

      July 13, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • Jon

      Actually maybe the ones really sowing the seeds of discontent of future conflict are the ones who HAVE left to western nations...are trying to put in place enough people so that one day places like Paris or London will look like Damascas. They could take their tribal mentality and implant it in the suburbs of western cities. I don't trust them....at all. When I see them in public, they are not likely to make eye contact and look really sneaky.

      July 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • Linda H

      This CRAP is getting redundant. I thought it was Saddam H. who was a horrible bad guy. Then came Gadaffi – another "bad man" who had to go. Now it's "Bashar al-Assad. What did Saddam do now that was so horrible? I can't remember. Gaddafi? What was his "bad guy" story? Don't remember. It's all running together. Bad guy! Kills babies! Has WMD!! We got to go over there and stick our noses where they don't belong. It's all lies, people. These men are "ousted" because they are middle aged and of no more use to the USA. People, can't you SEE! Take off your blindfolds, Fellow Americans.

      July 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    History has seen people fleeing reality in times of wars. Europe's elite and aristocracy drowned themselves in flamboyance and decadence during the two Great Wars. For these people the battlefields were far away and information technology was non-existent. Today the privileged ones choose to live in a world of delusion, as they see themselves powerless vis-à-vis the reality on the ground.

    July 12, 2012 at 3:46 am | Reply
  3. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected, Mr.Editor Garu, U S insolence completely downed. Because Al-Assads Govt is a Democratic, and followed U N O resolutions.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:25 am | Reply
  4. Hahahahahahahahahahha

    Just like ANY elite!!!!!!!!!!! Hahahahahahahahaha

    July 12, 2012 at 9:04 am | Reply
  5. Wim Roffel

    Who says "Assad is killing his people"? It is a dirty war and Assad's side is not clean but the same applies to the opposition.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
  6. Matt A.

    Listen to Genesis, "Land of Confusion." It probably won't mean much to many Islamicists or a few Westerners, but give it a few "hearings," and then view it in a worldy context.

    July 12, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
    • nina

      I appreciated the song when i first heard it and I see how appropriate the lyrics are today.

      July 12, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  7. Aaron Chaney

    Covetousness is a sin. Translation: Tunisia only has received proper remuneration during the so-called Arab Spring because they are an original. All the rest i.e. Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and yes Syria, are all covetous copycats.

    July 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  8. rblackbird

    Reading this reminds me of the scenes in Godfather 2 when the Cuban elite finally realized that Castro was coming to Havana to take over. Government collapse, panic, fear, riot, massive civic dislocation, and score settling. This is the lot awaiting these people. The worst of them do not realize that the opposition has probably already begun to pick out the lampposts for them.

    If the regime decides to fight it out in the cities, the Syrians will learn the true meaning of "holocaust."

    Syria is becoming a ship of fools.

    July 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
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