David Calling

A Shameful Stand-off

Put yourself in the shoes of Bashar Assad, the fellow who inherited the presidency of Syria from his father Hafez Assad. Everyone in the country knows that Bashar hasn’t a shred of legitimacy, and most of them want him out. Fearing that the successor might be an Islamist monster, a minority hope Bashar can somehow hold things together. And how to do that?  In the ten years that he has been in power, he has regularly dropped hints about reform. This is only pro forma. Reform, he knows, is the slippery slope that leads to the end of his power. So when the Arab Spring forced the issue, he chose repression. Now he has been responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people and the arrest or disappearance of probably 30,000 or more. A film on television just now shows a large apartment block in the city of Homs being shelled by tank fire. This is war against the people he is supposed to be presiding over. Protesters are in the streets in growing numbers and he cannot fail to realise that if they lay hands on him he will be executed in the Qaddafi style. An American president who understood the Middle East would have long since made it impossible for Bashar to stay in office. Now even the protective Russia and China are pressuring him. Turkey is openly backing the embryo Syrian opposition. The defection of soldiers from the Syrian armed forces has the prospect of civil war.

As an urgent exercise in public relations, he has to get across that he’s not your usual blood-stained Arab dictator but just doing what anybody would do in his position. So he gives an interview to the Sunday Telegraph, a media outlet supposed to be conservative. Sure enough, Andrew Gilligan, an investigative journalist and no fool, gives Bashar the chance to describe himself as a perfectly normal chap, living in a bungalow without security, driving his own car to take the kids to school, concluding, “That’s why I am popular.” What he’s bringing, he wants Gilligan to report, is stability, keeping down the ill-wishers of the Muslim Brotherhood paid and armed to create trouble. The pitch is that everyone should back his stand against the Islamists. “If you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake … Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistan?”

“I will do such things —” raved King Lear, “What they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” Bashar’s threats of more Afghanistans reveals how deeply he fears Western intervention, and like King Lear would ward it off with rhetoric, the only available weapon. What we have here, then, is a shameful stand-off between an individual who has no idea what to do except kill, and the international collective that has no idea at all, period.