Robert Fisk: Assad's assault risks wiping out Syria's past and its future

With the Syrian government now flaunting its total control over Damascus – the "final battle" trumpeted by the rebels having been, for the moment, won by their antagonists – Damascus may at least be spared the cultural destruction visited upon much of the rest of Syria. Krak des Chevaliers has been shelled after rebels sought sanctuary in this most glorious of Crusader castles, Syrian troops have taken over the castle at Palmyra and bombarded the Citadel of al-Mudiq, looters have used bulldozers to carry away the great Roman mosaics of Apamea. But the treasures of Damascus remain intact.

Salafists among the armed opponents of the Assad regime would presumably have no qualms about destroying the tomb of Saladin nor what is said to be the headless corpse of John the Baptist beside the "built-on-air" Omayad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus. But the problem for all autocracies in the Middle East – and let us not forget the undemocratic gentlemen of the Gulf – is that they must sew their own presence into their country's history.

No institution does this more assiduously than the Assad Library, the vast bunker-block above Omawiyin Square, in front of which sits a vast iron sculpture of President Hafez al-Assad – father of President Bashar al-Assad – in an equally vast iron chair and holding open a very large iron book. The Assad Library is not exactly on the tourist trail but I have been inside its 22,000sq metres of concrete galleries and prowled its 19,300 original manuscripts dating to the 11th century, its 300,000 volumes, its computer centre and its state-of-the-art halls for ancient manuscript repairs.

I filled my notebook with these scraps of history in this most Baathist of memorials. A 1649 French translation of the Koran, a 1671 Bible in Latin and Arabic, a 500-year-old Arabic dictionary, the collected speeches of the Caliph Ali, dated 1308.

And we return again to the old and painful question: how dare we fear for history's treasures when the youth of Syria is bleeding to death, when children's shrouded corpses are being put into the earth of Aleppo?

But Syria's heritage – our heritage, too – does matter. It will be the property of Syria's future inhabitants, whoever wins this deplorable, slovenly, cynical battle today. Its message of cultural renewal and of theological persistence and philosophical persuasion is as relevant now as it was 900 years ago. Whoever "wins" – and civil wars rarely have clear winners – should study those manuscripts to learn about human folly. Including their own.