Robert Fisk: This was supposed to be a 'game changer' week in Syria, so why is it all the same?

In the 13th century Sultan Qalawun was known as the 'suppressor of rebels'. The army of his 21st century counterpart may be winning, but the rebels are not 'suppressed'


The Iraqi poet al-Mutanabbi – he who said that “if you see the teeth of a lion, it doesn’t mean that the lion is smiling at you” – was murdered by someone he had offended in a poem. So writers living in Middle Eastern dictatorships have generally adopted the cautious politics of the Tudor poets, of Shakespeare’s tragedies or John Donne. Tell your story in metaphor.

Always when I come to Syria, I bring Warwick Ball’s gentle archeological manual, published almost 20 years ago. And so in Damascus, contemplating the nature of autocracy, I naturally turned to it and the inscription on the wall of the Aleppo citadel which commemorates the 13th-century Sultan Qalawun. The reader deserves to read this: “Lord, the greatest ruler, the most noble king, the learned, the just, the victorious, the warrior, the guardian of the frontiers, the helper, the triumphant … suppressor of rebels … the Alexander of his time.” Syrian Baath Party propaganda couldn’t beat that!

But as I was writing these words in Damascus, I did wonder how the occupant of the city’s presidential palace felt more than two years into a bloodbath as violent as that through which Qalawun lived. The sultan had to face family feuds – just as the father of Bashar al-Assad did – but the latter has a long way to go to earn those other titles. Bashar’s own enemies may regard him as an apostate (a sectarian label, for Alawites are no heretics) but the “suppressor of rebels” is a sobriquet that Assad has not yet earned. His army may be winning for the moment, but the rebels are not “suppressed”. As for “guardian of the frontiers”, Syria has lost all but one border post with Turkey.

So where do we stand in Syria today? Well, what happened in Libya – Nato support for rebels who killed Gaddafi and then turned their country into a series of Islamist fiefdoms where even the US ambassador could be murdered – probably saved Syria. Take a listen to the senior US Democrat Nancy Pelosi on Friday. “This is not Libya. The Syrians have anti-aircraft capability that makes going in there  much more challenging.” Indeed.

For journalists have forgotten – but I bet Pelosi hasn’t – that US aircraft did attack the Syrian military in Lebanon in the 1980s. One bomber was shot down in the Bekaa Valley, one of its crew killed and the other held for weeks in a Damascus prison until Jesse Jackson decided to “break the cycle of violence” and plead successfully with Assed père for his release. So no, Nato is not going to bomb the tanks of the Syrian regime.

In much the same way, Iraq has probably saved Iran from US attack. True, the Qataris and the Saudis are arming the rebels of Syria but – with just enough to stop them losing but not enough to allow them to win. Does the same apply, one wonders, to the Russians as they resupply the Syrian army’s tank corps?

If the Sultan Qalawun had to defeat Crusaders from the superpowers of Europe and from regional enemies like Iran, Bashar al-Assad has Washington and the EU, plenty of local Gulf kings and a host of rebels of various Islamist credentials to contend with.

This time, he has Iran on his side.

Yet history is a strange companion. Look at the last two years. Remember the mass defections, the Free Syria Army and the tens of thousands who were expected to flock to its colours? Thousands did. Tens of thousands did not.

Remember General Manaf Tlass who defected last July? When did we last hear of him? A Prime Minister defected – and was replaced. A Defence Minister was assassinated – and replaced. Assad’s forces were collapsing at Aleppo, or so we were told. A government general in the city did tell me last August that he would recapture neighbouring streets in 10 days. He still has not.  And if Aleppo can hold on, why shouldn’t Damascus?  

Then there are Syria’s chemical weapons. Last week’s hair-raising “red line” headlines transmogrified Obama into King Lear (“I will do such things – what they are yet, I know not…”) with his usual double-speak: “this is going to be a game-changer”, but it’s only a “preliminary assessment”. So forget red lines.

And so no change. Two more years of war? Three? History is a cruel master. For last autumn that wonderful inscription was blasted off the Aleppo citadel wall by rebel explosives. So much for the guardian of frontiers and the suppressor of rebels.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform