What Assad Knows

11/04/2012 10:16 BST | Updated 10/06/2012 10:12 BST

Western diplomats are appalled that the deadline for the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from towns has come and gone without any change in the situation on the ground. UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan insists that his six-point peace plan is "still on the table," while Turkish prime minister Recep Tayip Erdogan is urging the UN to "toughen its stance."

And so the farce continues. The words bear no relationship to reality. President Bashar al-Assad never had the slightest intention of sticking to his side of the Annan peace plan. He knows that pulling his troops out of the towns would be suicide; the protesters would reclaim the streets immediately, and his grip on power would be fatally weakened. There is, and has always been, only one way out of the crisis for Assad, and that is to kill all his opponents.

That does not mean the words are unimportant, of course. The whole diplomatic charade is a vital element of the conflict. Diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means, and victory depends on keeping a straight face while you lie through your teeth. But not everybody seems to know this. People and countries vary in the amount of credence they lend to the word game.

On the surface, at least, Westerners often appear to be the biggest suckers. France, for example, stated yesterday that it was a "flagrant and unacceptable lie" for Syria to claim it had withdrawn its forces from populated areas, as required by the Annan peace plan. Their indignation suggests that they take the charade seriously. This is either a very clever double-bluff, or rank stupidity.

In this regard, Assad is much smarter than his credulous Western counterparts. He knows that the Annan peace plan is just the latest move in the verbal game of chess, which he plays so well precisely because he understands how much importance the West places on being seen to play by the rules. To maintain this level of cynicism, and not be tempted even occasionally to grant anyone the benefit of the doubt, requires a certain discipline - or a natural born Machiavellianism - that is lacking in most Westerners. This is Assad's greatest strength. It is why he continues to run rings around the UN, and is able to play with Annan like a cat toying nonchalantly with a rather stupid mouse. He knows that all the other emperors are just as naked as he is, but he also knows that nobody will dare do anything so long as he continues the charade of discussing each others' clothing with the utmost gravitas.

But even Assad makes the occasional blunder, and fails to keep a straight face. Half way through his notorious interview with Barbara Walters last December, he let down his guard for a brief moment, and laid his cards on the table for everyone to see.

It started with his admission that he did not think the UN was a credible organisation. When Walters responded by pointing out that Syria had an ambassador at the UN, Assad couldn't keep it up any longer. Grinning broadly at her faux-naivete, he blurted out the ugly truth: "Yeah," he said, "it's a game we play. It doesn't mean you believe in it."