Why does al-Assad rely on insults in his speech against opponents?

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during his meeting with personalities from the Baath Party - April 15, 2024 (Baath Party/Facebook)

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad during his meeting with personalities from the Baath Party - April 15, 2024 (Baath Party/Facebook)


Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

Over the past 13 years, it has become usual to hear insults from the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, against his opponents, who he described two months after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011 as germs that proliferate everywhere and cannot be eradicated, but rather one can work to strengthen the body’s immunity to repel them.

“Germs, herds, swarms of locusts, agents, slaves, and bulls” are all insults, verbal abuses, and derogatory and indecorous phrases spoken by al-Assad, attacking his opponents. The latest were his descriptions of them as “bulls and herds,” reflecting the character of a spiteful ruler based on distorting the image of the opposition and erasing them from existence, deepening his dictatorship and dominance.

A history of vulgarity

On May 4, al-Assad stated during an expanded meeting of the Baath Party‘s (the ruling party in Syria) central committee that he hadn’t heard about “the bulls of the revolution who were mistakenly called rebels, that they had fired a single rocket for the dignity of the people of Gaza, or made a statement or staged a demonstration with posters supporting them.”

He added, “We didn’t see the traitors go to the Congress like herds to demand a law to hold Israel accountable, but they went for a law to hold Syria accountable.”

“Herds and swarms of locusts”

In October 2022, al-Assad said during a meeting with workers while visiting a gas plant in central Syria, “When ignorance meets treachery, it results in destruction, and ignorance combined with treachery turns humans into herds, and herds need a shepherd from abroad to lead them” (referring to his opponents and the conspiracy narrative he constantly talks about).

He described his opponents as swarms of locusts that swoop down and destroy the crop within hours, considering them to be human swarms of locusts, “but made of flesh and blood with no intellect, morals, belonging, or patriotism, leading to all this destruction.”

“Bulls and traitors”

Previously, Bashar al-Assad described his opponents as “bulls and traitors,” and his supporters as “rebels who have redefined patriotism,” doing so in May 2021, a day after announcing his victory in a fourth consecutive seven-year presidential term.

Addressing his supporters, al-Assad said, “You have redefined patriotism, and this automatically means redefining treason, and the difference between them is like the difference between what was called a revolution of rebels, and what we witnessed as an eruption of bulls, the difference is between a rebel imbued with honor, and a bull fed on fodder, between a rebel whose path is dignity and pride, and a bull that loves subjugation and disgrace, between a rebel who kneels to his Creator, and a bull that falls prostrate before the dollar,” according to him.

“Agents and slaves”

Al-Assad described the political opposition as “agents of outside parties,” and said in 2017, about the political initiatives proposed by the opposition with international and regional parties, that they presented in every meeting and in every direct or indirect dialogue everything that expresses the interests of foreign states, specifically hostile to Syria, and were against the interests of the Syrian people.

Furthermore, al-Assad described his opponents as “of no weight, and single-use tools that are then thrown in the trash bin, like medical instruments, except that medical instruments are sterile, while they are contaminated tools that cannot be recycled or used again.”

In 2015, al-Assad accused the Syrian opposition abroad of “dependency and servitude,” describing them as “slaves,” stating, “There is a big difference between the external opposition manufactured abroad, and obeying its orders, and the domestic opposition that cooperates with the government to overcome the crisis, and boost the country’s immunity,” as he described.

In 2013, he stated, “We have a national opposition that threw itself into political and national work from the early days, and part of this opposition is now with us in this room,” adding that there is an “unpatriotic opposition whose only goal was to achieve gains.”

Lack of stature

Vulgarity is not strange in the world of politics and governance; however, scholars and politicians see it as confined to being rude, incapable, and a sign of weak character, as expressed by the Russian communist politician and thinker Vladimir Lenin, who said, “Insults in politics express how incapable their author is of providing a scientific critique of their political opponents.”

Dr. Nigel Barber, a scholar in biopsychology, believes that the explanation for the insult could be an attempt to reduce the social status of the recipient and raise the relative status of the insulter. It can be assumed that insults are often driven by anger surrounding issues of insecurity in status, and many insults serve as reactions, meaning they are responses to real or imagined insults from others.

Barber considered that the purpose of an insult is to lower another person in the imagined hierarchy of status; therefore, it is not surprising that insults often refer to the person’s social status in terms of lineage, or the lack of status, or membership in a “despised outsider group.”

He also mentioned that another way to knock someone down and attack them is by questioning their intelligence or overall mental competence, and for the purposes of insult, the attacker uses words like “stupid” or “crazy.”

Hating the other side

Politics sometimes turns into what is called emotional polarization, where groups not only differ on politics but also maintain deep hatred for the other side and express it. This deep aversion provides fertile ground for ugly rhetoric, according to “Nasty Politics” by Thomas Zeitzoff who is an associate professor at the School of Public Affairs in the American University.

Zeitzoff told Enab Baladi that these insults occur for two main reasons, the first being that insults and nasty language get attention, particularly from the media, so it can be a way to get headlines and news coverage.

The second reason is that politicians use insults and threatening language to signal to their supporters that they will fight for them, and also protect or hurt their perceived enemies, as a signal of strength.

Zeitzoff added that Syria is not a democracy, so al-Assad may also be signaling to members of his regime who the targets are, and also warning those targets themselves. 

A dictator with complexes and defects

Through his book “Assad or We Burn the Country,” American writer Sam Dagher paints a psychological picture of Bashar al-Assad as a dictator who initially suffered from complexes and defects, and later tried to compensate for them by exhibiting exaggerated masculinity through cruelty and sarcasm.

Dagher exposes the false image that al-Assad likes to portray, that of the modern, open-minded, and progressive doctor who accidentally ended up in the world of politics.

Dagher considered that al-Assad was willing to kill hundreds of thousands of Syrians to remain in power even before the emergence of the Islamic State organization.

The author connects the great repression practiced by the regime against the Syrians and the release of hundreds of Islamists from prisons, according to the book, as transported by sources from inside the regime, that al-Assad ordered his officers to abandon border points with the rising of the Islamic State organization. The author also accuses al-Assad of killing his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

13 years since the Syrian revolution

In March 2011, demonstrations demanding reform and political change and the overthrow of the regime in Syria erupted, which the Syrian regime met with iron and fire and a tight security grip, turning the peaceful movement into an armed one.

The Syrian revolution is heading into its 14th year, burdened with tens of thousands of detainees and millions of displaced and exiled, and the death of 231,278 civilians, including 15,334 due to torture, arbitrary detention (forced disappearance) of 156,757 people, and the displacement of nearly 14 million people, by the parties to the conflict and the controlling forces in Syria from March 2011 to March 2024, as documented by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR).

Out of the total, the Syrian regime forces killed 201,260 people, while Russian forces killed 6,969 people.

For decades, the Syrian regime has derived its strength and ability to maintain power from complete control over the military and security institutions, building a totalitarian state, excluding opposing forces, deepening alliances with Iran and Russia, and understanding security stability policies in the region in relation to the United States and Israel, among other local and international factors.



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