Robert Fisk: Egypt helps Assad stall while the war on opposition continues

 

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The Independent Online

Egypt is the best thing to happen to Syria for a long time. Just when Western leaders – and Qatar – were hounding President Bashar al-Assad for his brutal suppression of opposition demonstrations, along comes the latest crisis in Egyptian cities where security men brutally suppress opposition demonstrators who want the army to obey the orders of a real democratic parliament and to stop posing as the "guardians" of a new constitution.

Of course, Syria is not Egypt, which, I suppose, accounts for the mouse-like silence of the Obamas, Clintons, Camerons, Sarkozys and the Emir of Qatar over events in Cairo.

This gives yet more time for Damascus to talk about reform while its army fights the armed insurgency. Is it still possible, conceivably, that President Assad, pictured, will use this tiny bottle of oxygen from Egypt to prove that he really means what he says about democracy, pluralism, etc?

Dr Faisal Mokdad, Assad's Deputy Foreign Minister, is a believer. "Syria is changing and the old Syria will never come back," he told me. "It will be a country free for the press. The ballot box will decide."

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq set back early plans for reform, Dr Mokdad insists. I take note of the minister's conviction that Obama made the right decision in withdrawing from Iraq.

"The number of young American soldiers killed in Iraq – quite apart from the huge civilian casualties – was 4,600. Saddam Hussein has gone – but was it worth $400bn? In Libya, I'm told the cost was 30,000 dead." Needless to say, I had to turn to the little matter of civilian casualties in Syria and the UN's claim that 3,500 had died. Was it worth it?

Dr Mokdad is the right man to ask, for he was the official chosen by President Assad to face bereaved families of Deraa when two teenagers died under torture by security police after writing anti-Assad graffiti last February.

"There were peaceful demonstrations in Deraa," Dr Mokdad says. "What happened should never have happened. I was sent to Deraa to give condolences for the dead. They knew mistakes were made, that the President had nothing to do with this. He fired the governor and he established an independent judicial committee to investigate. What I do know is that armed groups are killing demonstrators."

But demonstrators killed by "armed groups" is not what the YouTube pictures from Homs suggest; today, however, these "armed groups" are certainly killing Assad's soldiers in very large numbers; opposition groups deny they are behind the insurgency, though they express enough frustration to make anyone suspect they are. Dr Mokdad believes foreign journalists should be in Syria, but tells me he does not want me to risk my life in Homs.

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