Early in 2011 the Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck took a lot of stick for a profile she wrote of the glamorous wife of the Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad. As you might expect of such a piece, “A Rose in the Desert” focused on Mrs. Assad’s good looks, elegant wardrobe, and charitable hobbies, rather than the Assad regime’s harsh way with dissidents or its equally wholehearted hospitality to terrorists.
One critic rather hyperbolically likened Ms. Buck to a journalist going to Berlin in the mid-1930s to fawn over Eva Braun. It was not fair because at the time of the interview and even at the time it was published, Mr. Assad himself had not yet ordered the gunning down of unarmed protesters. It was not yet obvious that Bashar had inherited the ruthlessness of his father, a man who had deliberately slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians.
On the other hand it was fairly well known that, under Bashar’s rule, Syria sent hundreds of “volunteers” to back up the Saddam Hussein regime when the Coalition invaded from Kuwait. It was better known that Bashar provided both a sanctuary and logistical support to Islamist and Baathist Iraqi insurgents attacking U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government for several years after Saddam’s fall. These insurgents were responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians as well as hundreds of Coalition troops.
(Of course, for some Americans on the left, sending militants to kill American troops or elected officials of the post-Saddam government would not be seen as particularly blameworthy. The same goes for Syria’s notorious sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas.)
It certainly has been no secret that Bashar’s intelligence agents punished Lebanese attempts to evict Syrian occupation by arranging the assassinations of Lebanese journalists, democracy activists, and even Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
But both Ms. Buck and Vogue’s editors could and should be forgiven for their apparent ignorance of the Damascus regime’s misdeeds or the vicious nature of the Syrian regime. They are in the business of fashion and glamour — and there is always glamour to be found around men and women of absolute power.
Indeed throughout the 20th century (and before), intellectuals with much greater political experience and mental firepower than Vogue’s editors and writers found themselves dazzled and entranced by dictators ranging from Mussolini to Castro.
Moreover and more important, the more serious news-oriented sections of Western media — as well as the likes of Al Jazeera — had long underplayed or ignored the nastier aspects of the Syrian regime. The British media in particular seem to have had a soft spot for Assad’s Syria.
Over the last decade, every major British paper published articles extolling Syria’s attractiveness and benevolence while mocking or condemning American hostility to the regime. For the kind of British reporter who takes pride in vacationing in places eschewed by fearful or ignorant Americans, Syria has a particularly strong appeal. British orientalists like Barnaby Rogerson and William Dalrymple have celebrated Syria’s supposed ethnic and religious tolerance and relative secularism, despite the fact that the latter was cemented by murderous repression of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This affection for Syria under the Assad regime on the part of people who claim to be experts on the Levant is partly a matter of the country’s very real charms for the foreign visitor. Syria boasts magnificent monuments, relatively unspoiled cities, superb food, and a culture with a deserved reputation for hospitality. For the breed of British writer whose politics are founded on aesthetics, a delicious coffee served by a handsome and friendly waiter in a charming café in a beautiful quarter in Damascus is all the proof one needs that Syria is a free and happy country, perfectly content to live under the benign rule of the Assads.
And as so many travel articles have pointed out, Syria is — or rather was — safe and hassle-free for the kind of adventurous tourist who chose to go there. This is, of course, thanks to the omnipresence of state security forces; ruthlessly efficient police states are generally very secure places.