– The guns were silent atop Mount Qasioun as President Bashar Assad welcomed visitors to his palace. Assad, radiating confidence, promised his guests — half a dozen American and British journalists and policy analysts — that a new era of openness, transparency and dialogue was dawning in Syria. Then he rejected any personal responsibility for the war ravaging his country, blaming the United States and Islamic militants.

Assad declared that he expected to be president at least until his third seven-year term ends in 2021. And he asserted that the state of the social fabric in Syria — a country where hundreds of thousands have been killed and city centers reduced to rubble — was “much better than before” the war. “I’m just a headline — the bad president, the bad guy, who is killing the good guys,” Assad said. “You know this narrative. The real reason is toppling the government. This government doesn’t fit the criteria of the United States.”