Today 28 people are reported in one newspaper to have been shot dead in Syria, thirteen of them in two villages near the Turkish border. Furthermore, the United Nations, a body instinctively pro-Syrian, announces that the death toll has now passed 5,000 — surely an underestimate. One Syrian also describes how he was tortured, and one of his legs is gangrenous. Yet elsewhere, Muhammad Bassam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador, has given an interview to say that popular anger could have been corrected by reforms but “the Government instead responded with repression and killing.”
Of course it did. Bashar Assad is a one-man ruler who has done great harm to his country for the usual selfish ends of accumulating power and wealth. Challenged, he and anyone in his position is certain to respond with repression and killing. Reform on his part would be interpreted as weakness and readiness to give up. The very idea of reform in these circumstances is either a chimera or the prelude to revolution. Witness the Arab Spring.
David W. Lesch is the author of The New Lion of Damascus, subtitled “Bashar al Asad and Modern Syria,” published in 2005 by Yale University Press. The dust-jacket describes him as a professor in a university in Texas and no doubt he has professional credentials. I have the book in my library, but couldn’t recall what it said so I had another go at reading it. Here is a full-throated hymn of praise to Bashar, modest, studious, good-natured, pushed about by neo-conservatives, et cetera. Lesch’s credulity is impressive. Bashar, he asks us to believe, “is, indeed the hope — and the promise of a better future.” Again, “He has the opportunity to be at the vanguard of change in the Arab world … He has the intellect, the drive, the energy, and the ideas.”
Bashar’s fiefdom of murder is completely unpredictable from this characterization of the man. It is bewildering that events can prove a qualified professor to be so wrong. The axiom of Lord Acton comes to mind: “In the wake of every tyrant comes an apologist with a sponge.” Talk of reform and democracy and hope was drivel put out for Lesch’s benefit. He uses a sponge all right, not in order to defend crime but because the imagination required to understand this very different political order is missing. With academics like that, no wonder the public can’t come to grips with Middle Eastern reality.