Robert Fisk: Beware wishful thinking. Assad isn’t going soon

The West has an odd habit of assuming dictators we don't like will simply disappear


Syrians who settled down to listen to Bashar Assad’s independence day speech two nights ago were sorely disappointed. He didn’t exactly offer blood, sweat and tears. Just more war, and the assurance that he would win. Up to 7,000 prisoners would be released to celebrate Syria’s freedom from French rule 67 years ago – which goes to show how many prisoners are still held in the country’s jails – but Assad wanted to assure his people that this really was a war. As if they didn’t know. It was not sectarian. Foreign news media were portraying a lie: that “a president was holding on to his seat against a population who want him gone, but that is not the case”. France still regarded Syria as its colony. Western nations wanted the Arabs to submit to them. “We saw their humanitarian intervention in Iraq, in Libya, and now we see it in Syria.”

But Assad had a point. London, Paris and Washington love exiles. Into Iraq, we tried to inject the ghastly and wealthy exile Ahmed Chalabi. And we all know how reliable he turned out to be. We pretended that Libya’s freedom fighters were Homeric warriors; and now they control their little Islamist fiefdoms in Benghazi and Tripoli (having done away with the US ambassador), courtesy of Nato air strikes against Gaddafi. If Algeria was not such a loyal ally of Syria, Assad might have pointed out that the French handed their colony over to the Algerian exiles who had largely avoided the war of independence – and who produced the autocratic and vicious state which slaughtered its own people in the Islamist struggle of the 1990s and which remains a corrupt and corrupted regime to this day.

And then we have the Syrian “opposition”, insofar as it exists, with its endless fraternal arguments and juvenile infighting – what on earth does dear leader Khatib think he is doing? Has he resigned or not resigned? – and its alliance with the very same al-Qa’ida groupuscules that are supposed to be the centre of jihadism in Mali. Remember Mali? This was the centre of world terror back in January. Now the centre of world terror is supposed to be in northern Syria – fighting on “our” side against the hated Assad. And we brave Westerners are worried, supposedly, that Bashar’s chemical weapons will fall “into the wrong hands” – being presumably in the “right hands” (Assad’s) now! It makes you wonder who writes the Assad speeches. Can’t they do better than the curmudgeonly interview that Assad gave on Wednesday night?

Remember Mali? This was the centre of world terror back in January

But we still don’t understand the autocracies of the Middle East, both those we love – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other well-known freedom-loving, pro-American democracies  – and those we loathe – Syria, Iran, possibly a future Iraq (if it doesn’t obey our orders) and potentially Egypt (unless the army takes over and returns the country to a Mubarak lookalike). Never will I forget the fantasist Daniel Pipes’ suggestion that what Iraq needed in the aftermath of Saddam was “a democratically minded strongman”. Isn’t that what Assad would claim to be?

And all the while, we are content to see Arab nations ganging up on the Syrian regime, pushing more and more weapons into the war – which is indeed, contrary to what Assad says, more and more sectarian – even though the Islamist al-Nusra movement is now by far the strongest among the rebels. Yet we are outraged that Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah might be involved – in Hezbollah’s case, there is no “might” about it – in the same war. Up to 40 Hezbollah fighters are now said to have died in the Syrian conflict, most in Shia Lebanese villages on the Syrian side of the border. In Qusayr last week, at least five Hezbollah fighters were killed. One of them, Assad Ali Assad – and here we have a name, in case anyone cares to deny the story – was buried in southern Lebanon at the weekend.

But Hezbollah’s involvement is important because Iran and its allies are also part of the reason for this conflict. And it remains a fact, even though Assad did not – could not – mention this in his independence day speech, that Iran is the target of the Syrian war, the overthrow of Assad part of our plan to destroy his Iranian ally – just as it was part of Israel’s plan to deconstruct Iran by fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Israel lost its war. Will Assad’s enemies lose, too?

We have, in London, Paris and Washington, an odd habit. We believe that those dictators we don’t like will actually go – “step down”, “step aside”, lose the war, whatever phrase we like to use – because we want them to go. Wasn’t Saddam destroyed? Wasn’t Gaddafi liquidated? Didn’t Milosevic go to the Hague? All true. But Stalin survived. Kim Jong-un isn’t doing too badly, either – though that’s probably because he actually has nuclear weapons, as opposed to Iran which might or might not be trying to acquire them and thus remains on the Israeli-American target list. And here’s some bad news for Assad’s foes.

The Syrian army is tired of corruption. It is tired of party nepotism. It is becoming very angry with those it blames for the war

He mentioned the Syrian government army on Wednesday night. What he did not do was refer to their recent expansion of territory. His soldiers have now retaken most of rebel Deraya and are advancing into Harasta in the suburbs of Damascus. The 100-mile highway to Tartus, and thus to Latakia – long closed by the armed opposition – has just been reopened by Assad’s divisions. For the first time in months, Syrians can now drive from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast. The rebels so beloved of Nato nations are losing their hold of Damascus. Yes, they may get it back. The road to Latakia may close again. This war – beware – may last another two, three or more years. Nobody will win.

But the power that will have to be reckoned with – barring some mass mutiny – will be the Syrian army of Bashar Assad. It is tired of corruption. It is tired of party nepotism. It is becoming very angry with those it blames for the war: not just al-Qa’ida, al-Nusra, defectors and Nato, but with the intelligence services whose brutality in Daraa struck the match to the Syrian uprising. And just at the moment it is fighting back against Assad’s enemies. Western “statesmen”, diplomats, “analysts” and those absurd think-tankers so beloved of the networks may yet have to buy a new crystal ball.

Robert Fisk on Algeria

Buy the new Independent eBook - £1.99 Two decades of reportage on a tragic conflict the West can no longer afford to ignore - by one of the world’s great foreign correspondents

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