Robert Fisk: The fearful realities keeping the Assad regime in power

Nevermind the claims of armchair interventionists and the hypocrisy of Western leaders, this is what is really happening in Syria

Share
Related Topics

In my 1912 Baedeker guide to Syria, a page and a half is devoted to the city of Homs. In tiny print, it says that, "in the plain to the south-east, you come across the village of Baba Amr. A visit to the arcaded bazaar is worthwhile – here you will find beautiful silks. To the north of Homs, on a square, there is an artillery barracks..." The bazaar has long since been demolished, though the barracks inevitably passed from Ottoman into French and ultimately into Baathist hands; for 27 days last month, this bastion has been visiting hell on what was once the village of Baba Amr.

Once a Roman city, where the crusaders committed their first act of cannibalism – eating their dead Muslim opponents – Homs was captured by Saladin in 1174. Under post-First World War French rule, the settlement became a centre of insurrection and, after independence, the very kernel of Baathist resistance to the first Syrian governments. By early 1964, there were battles in Homs between Sunnis and Alawi Shia. A year later, the young Baathist army commander of Homs, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Tlas, was arresting his pro-regime comrades. Is the city's history becoming a little clearer now?

As one of the Sunni nouveaux riches who would support the Alawi regime, Tlas became defence minister in Hafez al-Assad's Baathist government. Under their post-1919 mandate, the French had created a unit of "Special Forces" in which the Alawis were given privileged positions; one of their strongholds was the military academy in Homs. One of the academy's most illustrious students under Hafez al-Assad's rule – graduating in 1994 – was his son Bashar. Bashar's uncle, Adnan Makhlouf, graduated second to him; Makhlouf is today regarded as the corrupting element in the Assad regime.

Later, Bashar would become a doctor at the military Tishreen Hospital in Damascus (where today most of the Syrian army's thousands of victims are taken for post-mortem examination before their funerals). Bashar did not forget Homs; his British-born Sunni wife came from a Homs family. One of his closest advisers, Bouthaina Shabaan, comes from Homs; even last year the city was too dangerous for her to visit her mother's grave on the anniversary of her death. Homs lies deep in the heart of all Syrians, Sunni and Alawite alike. Is it surprising that it should have been the Golgotha of the uprising? Or that the Syrian authorities should have determined that its recapture would break the back of the revolution? To the north, 30 years ago, Hafez Assad created more than 10,000 "martyrs" in Hama; last week, Homs became a little Hama, the city's martyrdom predicted by its past.

So why were we so surprised when the "Free Syrian Army" fled the city? Did we really expect the Assad regime to close up shop and run because a few hundred men with Kalashnikovs wanted to stage a miniature Warsaw uprising in Homs? Did we really believe that the deaths of women and children – and journalists – would prevent those who still claim the mantle of Arab nationalism from crushing the city? When the West happily adopted the illusions of Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton – and the Arab Gulf states whose demands for Syrian "democracy" are matched by their refusal to give this same democracy to their own people – the Syrians understood the hypocrisy.

Were the Saudis, now so keen to arm Syria's Sunni insurgents – along with Sunni Qatar – planning to surrender their feudal, princely Sunni power to their own citizens and to their Shia minority? Was the Emir of Qatar contemplating resignation? Among the lobbyists of Washington, among the illusionists at the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corporation and the Council on Foreign Relations and all the other US outfits that peddle New York Times editorials, Homs had become the new Benghazi, the start-line for the advance on Damascus.

It was the same old American dream: if a police state was ruthless, cynical and corrupt – and let us have no illusions about the Baathist apparatus and its panjandrum – then its opponents, however poorly armed, would win; because they were the good guys. The old clichés clanked into focus. The Baathists were Nazis; Bashar a mere cipher in the hands of his family; his wife, Asma, variously an Eva Braun, Marie Antoinette or Lady Macbeth. Upon this nonsense, the West and the Arabs built their hopes.

The more Sarkozy, Cameron and Clinton raged against Syria's atrocities, the more forceful they were in refusing all military help to the rebels. There were conditions to be met. The Syrian opposition had to unite before they could expect help. They had to speak with one voice – as if Gaddafi's opponents did anything like this before Nato decided to bomb him out of power. Sarkozy's hypocrisy was all too obvious to the Syrians. So anxious was he to boost his chances in the French presidential election that he deployed hundreds of diplomats and "experts" to "rescue" the French freelance journalist Edith Bouvier, hampering all the efforts of NGOs to bring her to safety. Not many months ago, this wretched man was cynically denouncing two male French journalists – foolhardy, he called them - who had spent months in Taliban custody in Afghanistan.

French elections, Russian elections, Iranian elections, Syrian referendums – and, of course, US elections: it's amazing how much "democracy" can derail sane policies in the Middle East. Putin supports an Arab leader (Assad) who announces that he has done his best "to protect my people, so I don't feel I have anything to be blamed for... you don't feel you're to blame when you don't kill your own people". I suppose that would be Putin's excuse after his army butchered the Chechens. As it happens, I don't remember Britain's PM saying this about Irish Catholics on Bloody Sunday in 1972 – but perhaps Northern Ireland's Catholics didn't count as Britain's "people"?

No, I'm not comparing like with like. Grozny, with which the wounded photographer Paul Conroy drew a memorable parallel on Friday, has more in common with Baba Amr than Derry. But there is a distressing habit of denouncing anyone who tries to talk reality. Those who claimed that the IRA would eventually find their way into politics and government in Northern Ireland – I was one – were routinely denounced as being "in cahoots with terrorists". When I said in a talk in Istanbul just before Christmas that the Assad regime would not collapse with the speed of other Arab dictatorships – that Christian and Alawite civilians were also being murdered – a young Syrian began shrieking at me, demanding to know "how much you are being paid by Assad's secret police"? Untrue, but understandable. The young man came from Deraa and had been tortured by Syria's mukhabarat.

The truth is that the Syrians occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years and, long after they left in 2005, we were still finding their political claws deep inside the red soil of Beirut. Their intelligence services were still in full operation, their power to kill undiminished, their Lebanese allies in the Beirut parliament. And if the Baathists could smother Lebanon in so powerful a sisterly embrace for so long, what makes anyone think they will relinquish Syria itself easily? As long as Assad can keep Damascus and Aleppo, he can survive.

After all, the sadistic ex-secret police boss Najibullah clung on as leader of Afghanistan for years when all he could do was fly between Kabul and Kandahar. It might be said that, with all Obama's horses and all Obama's men on his side, this is pretty much all Hamid Karzai – with his cruel secret police, his regime's corruption, his bogus elections – can do today. But that is not a comparison to commend itself to Washington, Paris, London, Doha or Riyadh, or even Istanbul.

So what of Bashar Assad? There are those who believe that he really still wants to go down in history as the man who gave Syria its freedom. Preposterous, of course. The problem is that even if this is true, there are those for whom any profound political change becomes a threat to their power and to their lives. The security police generals and the Baathist paramilitaries will fight to the death for Assad, loyal to a man, because – even if they don't admire him – they know that his overthrow means their own deaths. But if Assad were to indicate that he intended to "overthrow" himself – if the referendum and the new constitution and all the "democratic" changes he talks about became real – these notorious men would feel both fear and fury. Why, in this case, should they any longer remain loyal?

No, Bashar Assad is not a cipher. He is taking the decisions. But his father, Hafez, came to power in 1970 in a "corrective" revolution; "corrections" can always be made again. In the name of Baathism. In the name of Arab nationalism. In the name of crushing the al-Qa'ida-Zionist-Islamist-terrorist enemy. In the name of history.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Nai or Oxi: whether Greece says Yes or No today its citizens will continue to struggle  

Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy

Rupert Cornwell
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'