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March 6, 2012

Robert Fisk: The fearful realities keeping the Assad regime in power

Nevermind the claims of armchair interventionists and the hypocrisy of
Western leaders, this is what is really happening in Syria.
Source: The Independent

In my 1912 Baedeker guide to Syria, a page and a half is devoted to the city of
Homs. In tiny print, it says that, "in the plain to the south-east, you come
across the village of Baba Amr. A visit to the arcaded bazaar is worthwhile –
here you will find beautiful silks. To the north of Homs, on a square, there is
an artillery barracks..." The bazaar has long since been demolished, though
the barracks inevitably passed from Ottoman into French and ultimately into
Baathist hands; for 27 days last month, this bastion has been visiting hell on
what was once the village of Baba Amr.

Once a Roman city, where the crusaders committed their first act of
cannibalism – eating their dead Muslim opponents – Homs was captured by
Saladin in 1174. Under post-First World War French rule, the settlement
became a centre of insurrection and, after independence, the very kernel of
Baathist resistance to the first Syrian governments. By early 1964, there were
battles in Homs between Sunnis and Alawi Shia. A year later, the young
Baathist army commander of Homs, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Tlas, was
arresting his pro-regime comrades. Is the city's history becoming a little
clearer now?

As one of the Sunni nouveaux riches who would support the Alawi regime,
Tlas became defence minister in Hafez al-Assad's Baathist government.
Under their post-1919 mandate, the French had created a unit of "Special
Forces" in which the Alawis were given privileged positions; one of their
strongholds was the military academy in Homs. One of the academy's most
illustrious students under Hafez al-Assad's rule – graduating in 1994 – was
his son Bashar. Bashar's uncle, Adnan Makhlouf, graduated second to him;
Makhlouf is today regarded as the corrupting element in the Assad regime.

Later, Bashar would become a doctor at the military Tishreen Hospital in
Damascus (where today most of the Syrian army's thousands of victims are
taken for post-mortem examination before their funerals). Bashar did not
forget Homs; his British-born Sunni wife came from a Homs family. One of his
closest advisers, Bouthaina Shabaan, comes from Homs; even last year the
city was too dangerous for her to visit her mother's grave on the anniversary
of her death. Homs lies deep in the heart of all Syrians, Sunni and Alawite
alike. Is it surprising that it should have been the Golgotha of the uprising?
Or that the Syrian authorities should have determined that its recapture
would break the back of the revolution? To the north, 30 years ago, Hafez
Assad created more than 10,000 "martyrs" in Hama; last week, Homs became
a little Hama, the city's martyrdom predicted by its past.

So why were we so surprised when the "Free Syrian Army" fled the city? Did
we really expect the Assad regime to close up shop and run because a few
hundred men with Kalashnikovs wanted to stage a miniature Warsaw
uprising in Homs? Did we really believe that the deaths of women and
children – and journalists – would prevent those who still claim the mantle of
Arab nationalism from crushing the city? When the West happily adopted the
illusions of Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton – and the Arab
Gulf states whose demands for Syrian "democracy" are matched by their
refusal to give this same democracy to their own people – the Syrians
understood the hypocrisy.

Were the Saudis, now so keen to arm Syria's Sunni insurgents – along with
Sunni Qatar – planning to surrender their feudal, princely Sunni power to
their own citizens and to their Shia minority? Was the Emir of Qatar
contemplating resignation? Among the lobbyists of Washington, among the
illusionists at the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corporation and the
Council on Foreign Relations and all the other US outfits that peddle New
York Times editorials, Homs had become the new Benghazi, the start-line for
the advance on Damascus.

It was the same old American dream: if a police state was ruthless, cynical
and corrupt – and let us have no illusions about the Baathist apparatus and
its panjandrum – then its opponents, however poorly armed, would win;
because they were the good guys. The old clichés clanked into focus. The
Baathists were Nazis; Bashar a mere cipher in the hands of his family; his
wife, Asma, variously an Eva Braun, Marie Antoinette or Lady Macbeth. Upon
this nonsense, the West and the Arabs built their hopes.

The more Sarkozy, Cameron and Clinton raged against Syria's atrocities, the
more forceful they were in refusing all military help to the rebels. There were
conditions to be met. The Syrian opposition had to unite before they could
expect help. They had to speak with one voice – as if Gaddafi's opponents
did anything like this before Nato decided to bomb him out of power.
Sarkozy's hypocrisy was all too obvious to the Syrians. So anxious was he to
boost his chances in the French presidential election that he deployed
hundreds of diplomats and "experts" to "rescue" the French freelance
journalist Edith Bouvier, hampering all the efforts of NGOs to bring her to
safety. Not many months ago, this wretched man was cynically denouncing
two male French journalists – foolhardy, he called them - who had spent
months in Taliban custody in Afghanistan.

French elections, Russian elections, Iranian elections, Syrian referendums –
and, of course, US elections: it's amazing how much "democracy" can derail
sane policies in the Middle East. Putin supports an Arab leader (Assad) who
announces that he has done his best "to protect my people, so I don't feel I
have anything to be blamed for... you don't feel you're to blame when you
don't kill your own people". I suppose that would be Putin's excuse after his
army butchered the Chechens. As it happens, I don't remember Britain's PM
saying this about Irish Catholics on Bloody Sunday in 1972 – but perhaps
Northern Ireland's Catholics didn't count as Britain's "people"?

No, I'm not comparing like with like. Grozny, with which the wounded
photographer Paul Conroy drew a memorable parallel on Friday, has more in
common with Baba Amr than Derry. But there is a distressing habit of
denouncing anyone who tries to talk reality. Those who claimed that the IRA
would eventually find their way into politics and government in Northern
Ireland – I was one – were routinely denounced as being "in cahoots with
terrorists". When I said in a talk in Istanbul just before Christmas that the
Assad regime would not collapse with the speed of other Arab dictatorships
– that Christian and Alawite civilians were also being murdered – a young
Syrian began shrieking at me, demanding to know "how much you are being
paid by Assad's secret police"? Untrue, but understandable. The young man
came from Deraa and had been tortured by Syria's mukhabarat.

The truth is that the Syrians occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years and, long
after they left in 2005, we were still finding their political claws deep inside
the red soil of Beirut. Their intelligence services were still in full operation,
their power to kill undiminished, their Lebanese allies in the Beirut
parliament. And if the Baathists could smother Lebanon in so powerful a
sisterly embrace for so long, what makes anyone think they will relinquish
Syria itself easily? As long as Assad can keep Damascus and Aleppo, he can

After all, the sadistic ex-secret police boss Najibullah clung on as leader of
Afghanistan for years when all he could do was fly between Kabul and
Kandahar. It might be said that, with all Obama's horses and all Obama's men
on his side, this is pretty much all Hamid Karzai – with his cruel secret police,
his regime's corruption, his bogus elections – can do today. But that is not a
comparison to commend itself to Washington, Paris, London, Doha or Riyadh,
or even Istanbul.

So what of Bashar Assad? There are those who believe that he really still
wants to go down in history as the man who gave Syria its freedom.
Preposterous, of course. The problem is that even if this is true, there are
those for whom any profound political change becomes a threat to their
power and to their lives. The security police generals and the Baathist
paramilitaries will fight to the death for Assad, loyal to a man, because – even
if they don't admire him – they know that his overthrow means their own
deaths. But if Assad were to indicate that he intended to "overthrow" himself
– if the referendum and the new constitution and all the "democratic"
changes he talks about became real – these notorious men would feel both
fear and fury. Why, in this case, should they any longer remain loyal?

No, Bashar Assad is not a cipher. He is taking the decisions. But his father,
Hafez, came to power in 1970 in a "corrective" revolution; "corrections" can
always be made again. In the name of Baathism. In the name of Arab
nationalism. In the name of crushing the al-Qa'ida-Zionist-Islamist-terrorist
enemy. In the name of history.