Robert Fisk: Syria is used to the slings and arrows of friends and enemies

Bashar al-Assad is clinging to power despite the slow growth of a civil war. But if the regime should survive, what sort of country will it rule?

Share
Related Topics

The violence grows worse. The Arab League throws up its hands in despair. Madame Clinton may huff and puff at the United Nations. But the Syrian regime and the stalwarts of the old Baath party don't budge. Only the Arabs are unsurprised. For Syria – the "Um al-Arabia wahida", the Mother of One Arab People, as the Baathists would have it – is a tough creature, its rulers among the most tenacious in the Middle East, used to the slings and arrows of their friends as well as their enemies. Syria's "No" to anything but total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace is almost as famous as De Gaulle's "No" to British entry to the European Union.

True, the Syrian regime has never confronted opposition on such a scale. If the fatalities do not yet come close to the 10 or 20 thousand dead of the 1982 Hama uprising, which old Hafez al-Assad crushed with his customary ruthlessness, the widespread nature of today's rebellion, the defections from the Syrian army, the loss of all but one Arab ally – little Lebanon, of course – and the slow growth of a civil war make this the most dangerous moment in Syria's post-independence history. How can Bashar al-Assad hang on?

Well, there's Russia, of course, and the Putin-Medvedev determination not to be caught out by the West at the United Nations as they were when they failed to oppose the no-fly zones over Libya that led directly to Gaddafi's collapse. And there's Iran, for which Syria remains the Arab bridgehead. And Iranian suspicion that Syria is under international attack principally because of this alliance may well be correct. Strike down Baathist Syria and its Alawi-Shia President, and you cut deep into the soul of Iran itself. And there's Israel, which utters scarcely a word about Syria because it fears that a far more intransigent regime might take its place.

But Syria is also a symbol. In Arab eyes, it alone defied the West in refusing an unjust peace in the Middle East. Alone, it refused Anwar Sadat's peace with Israel. Alone, it turned its back on Yasser Arafat after his doomed agreement for "peace" with Israel. And historically, Syria alone defied its French occupiers in 1920 and then again in 1946 until its Damascus parliament was burned down over the heads of its defenders. And while many Lebanese choose to forget their own history, it remains a fact that after the First World War, most Lebanese wished their land to remain part of Syria – see the results of the King-Crane commission – rather than live in a separate nation under French patronage.

And far from being a state based on expansion, as America likes to claim, Syria has steadily lost territory. It lost Lebanon to French machinations. It lost Alexandretta in 1939 when the French handed it over to Turkey after a fraudulent referendum in the vain hope that the Turks would join the Allied alliance against Hitler. And it lost Golan to Israel in 1967. For Syria as a nation – rather than a regime – there is much sympathy as well as respect in the Arab world. Bashar al-Assad – neither a toady like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak nor mad like Libya's Gaddafi – knows all this.

But Baathism is not "Arabism", however much its supporters may claim the opposite. Decades of stability did not rid Syria of corruption. It fostered dictatorship along the same, dull rules which the Arabs tolerated for so many years: better autocracy than anarchy, better peace than freedom, albeit controlled by a Shia minority, better secular than sectarian. Why, if any Syrian wanted to see the results of a confessional state, they had only to look at the civil war in Lebanon.

With embarrassment, I look back now to that terrible conflict and the cruel words I wrote so many years ago; that one day, after years of Syrian military "peacekeepers" in Lebanon, the Lebanese army may be asked to fulfil the role of "peacekeepers" in Syria. At the time, it was a wicked joke. Not now, perhaps. Indeed, a Lebanese peace force in Syria – where all of Lebanon's communities (Sunni, Shia, Christian Maronite, Orthodox, Druze, Armenian) are represented – might just be one way of damping down the civil conflict there. A supreme irony, perhaps, after the 1976-2005 Syrian army's presence in Lebanon. An impossibility, of course. But it shows the nature of political change in the Middle East.

In reality, the Syrian government is likely to fight on alone. It always has. The Assad father-and-son doctrine has always been one of patience. Hold on tight – however great the condemnation by the rest of the world, however terrible the threats from Israel or America – and eventually the wheel of fortune will turn once more in your favour.

The awful carnage in Homs and the rest of Syria, the beheadings and the torture, however, suggest that Assad rule really is running out of time. Syria's people are dying just as the people of Egypt and Libya and Yemen have died, because they want the dignity of governing themselves. Their own battle is already infecting the sectarian divisions in northern Lebanon and they exist inside the Lebanese parliament, although this will not be the Syrian government's primary concern.

The battle for survival is a terrible thing and Bashar al-Assad still appears to believe that he can squeeze through his mass of proposed reforms before the disintegration of Syria. No one outside Syria appears to believe he will be successful. But there is one unasked question. Just suppose the regime did survive. Over what kind of Syria would it rule?

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Syrian refugees arrive on the shores of Lesvos island  

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Robert Fisk
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent