Alan George: The Assad regime's only purpose is to stay in power

Without recourse to military intervention, the United Nations is powerless to get rid of him, at least in the short term

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There will be much hand-wringing in the West at China and Russia's refusal yesterday to endorse a robust censure of the Syrian regime. But even if Moscow's position had been different, little would have changed. The beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad is simply not amenable to diplomatic pressure. It is interested only in clinging to power, at whatever cost to the Syrian people and regardless of the consequences.

Already, somewhere between 5,500 and 7,500 people have been killed, and perhaps 35,000 seriously wounded. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned and thousands have simply disappeared. Torture is rife. There are some 20,000 refugees, mainly in neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon. There's every reason to believe that it can only get worse.

Many of the Syrian protesters have been clamouring for outside intervention to protect them from their government's ruthless onslaught. But the reality is that there is little the outside world can do, short of intervening militarily. After Libya, that's not on the cards. The Arab League has tried and failed to mediate a solution. Neighbouring Turkey supports the opposition, but not to the extent of invading Syria on its behalf. Economic sanctions have had a serious effect, but not enough to bring down the regime. Bashar al-Assad and his family know that the most they have to fear from the UN – even if the Russians drop their protective veto – are toothless resolutions.

The Ba'athists seized power in a military coup in March 1963. In the initial period of Ba'athist rule, politics still existed. The party had military and civilian wings; there were leftists and rightists. In November 1970, Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez, Syria's defence minister, staged a coup. The military and security establishments were massively expanded, with an influx of officers from the new president's Alawi sect. Syria became a police state ruled with an iron fist. Political activity degenerated into a personality cult centred on the president.

When Hafez al-Assad died in mid-2000, his son, Bashar, a British-educated ophthalmologist, succeeded him. There followed a short-lived Damascus Spring. Criticism of the regime became possible, even in the state-run media. After six months, the spring turned into a winter. Like his father, Bashar has stayed in power largely thanks to his security agencies terrorising the population.

This is a regime that has no purpose other than to stay in power. There's no real ideology: just an empty rhetoric of vacuous slogans. That the broadly based protest movement should be denounced as nothing more than "armed gangs" acting as "agents" for outside powers is entirely par for the course.

It's very much a family affair, however. Bashar al-Assad rules largely as a figurehead, with the consent of a tight coterie of relatives. His younger brother Maher, who heads the Republican Guard and commands the army's 4th Mechanised Division, has been especially active in the attempts to suppress the uprising. Bashar's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, was formerly head of military intelligence and is now deputy chief of staff of the armed forces. A cousin, Hafez Makhlouf, heads the Damascus branch of the feared General Intelligence Directorate. While the President and his English-born wife Asma show no particular appetite for ostentatious consumption, other members of this mafia-like ruling family have wholeheartedly embraced the material benefits of power.

Central to the regime's narrative is that well-worn excuse of all dictators – that it alone can preserve stability. Yet if there were free and fair elections in Syria tomorrow, it would be out on its ears. It knows that any meaningful concessions to a real democratic process would be political suicide. It also knows that the opposition stands alone, and will probably continue to stand alone, even if the Russians change their tune at the UN.

Initially, the protesters called only for reform. Then, faced with violence and a refusal to negotiate, they started demanding the regime's downfall and began to take up arms to defend themselves. The middle of last year saw the formation of a Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is growing fast and is likely to become a key determinant of the eventual outcome of this struggle. It may be that the only factors that now really matter are the rate of defections from the security forces and the ability of the cash-strapped regime to pay its soldiers.

In the Middle East, crystal-ball gazing is always risky. But my guess is that this regime cannot last. Very probably, its demise is now only a matter of time. In February last year the President's wife infamously revealed in an interview with Paris Vogue that her household was run on what the magazine described as "wildly democratic principles". "We all vote on what we want, and where," she disclosed. Hopefully, it won't be too long before the people are able to exercise a similar degree of democracy.


Dr Alan George is a senior associate member of St Antony's College, Oxford. He is the author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom (Zed Books, London 2003)

Syrian embassy protest: Diplomatic mission stormed as demonstrators scuffle with police

A group of 150 protesters tried to storm the Syrian embassy in London in the early hours of yesterday, and there were scuffles with police later in the day when demonstrators, demanding its closure, began throwing missiles.

Protesters chanting "Syrian blood is everywhere" and "Shame on you, English police" climbed on to barriers in front of the building in Belgrave Square before police reinforcements were brought in to force them back.

One demonstrator, Abdulhadi Arwani, 45, who was born in Syria and has lived in London since 1995, said: "This building belongs to the Syrian people, not a regime killing people every single day for the past 10 months.

"Protesters managed to get in last night, but were arrested by the police, unfortunately. The situation is very bad in Syria, and last night's massacre was the worst killing of the 10 months so far. Nobody is doing anything about it, including the United Nations."

At least one police officer was taken to hospital with minor injuries. A Metropolitan Police spokesman said a number of people were arrested for public order offences, while another individual was detained on suspicion of assaulting a police officer.

The Foreign Office condemned the violence, saying it took "seriously its obligations to protect the staff and premises of foreign states in the UK".

Security was being reviewed by Scotland Yard, which said it would take "appropriate action to ensure the safety of the building".