Brutal Assad sells the illusion of stability
Vladimir Putin’s support has ensured the Syrian dictator’s survival, at least for now
In this 2010 file photo, Syria president Bashar al-Assad addresses reporters following his meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. Photograph: AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere
Over the past two years, Bashar al-Assad has lost control of two-thirds of Syria. Last spring, Islamists took over most of the northwestern province of Idlib and much of the southern border region. Islamic State seized Palmyra and threatened Assad’s stronghold of Lattakia. In July, Assad admitted that his troops were struggling.
This week the Syrian president and dictator received a new lease of life from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who defended his “legitimacy” before the UN General Assembly, called for a global alliance against Islamic State, then commenced bombing raids on Assad’s behalf. For Putin, like Assad, all opposition are “terrorists”.
Suddenly, the dictator’s survival is ensured, at least for the short and medium term. There is even talk of a joint Syrian-Russian offensive to retake the Roman ruins of Palmyra, which would be a public relations victory.
The presidents of the US and France are adamant that Assad “cannot be part of the solution”, but they have failed to find an acceptable alternative to him.
Assad’s father, Hafez, ruled Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000. Hafez’s chosen heir was his eldest son Bassel, who in 1994 was killed when he crashed his red Ferrari in fog. Bashar was pulled out of training as an ophthalmologist in London to be groomed as fallback successor.
When I met Assad at a session of the Ba’ath Party Congress two days after his father’s death, he spoke with a lisp and bore an uncanny resemblance to a giraffe.
Ironically, when Assad succeeded his father, the main concern of Syrians was that he would not be tough enough to hold the country together. Hafez had ordered the slaughter of up to 20,000 residents of Hama when the Muslim Brotherhood staged an uprising there in 1982.
Bashar has far surpassed his father in brutality. An estimated 250,000 Syrians have died violent deaths since 2011. The French government says 80 per cent were killed by the regime.
This week Paris launched an inquiry into “crimes against humanity” based on 55,000 photographs of cadavers, smuggled out by a Syrian police photographer. They show some 11,000 Syrians tortured to death by Assad’s henchmen.
He kept his word, freeing radical Islamists from prison, then allowing them to thrive while he concentrated attacks on the more credible, moderate opposition to his rule.
Assad learned ruthlessness, stubbornness and the rejection of compromise from his father, who transformed Lebanon into an international battlefield with big power stakes. Now Assad has done the same with Syria.
His greatest assets are the alliances with Tehran and Moscow. The Iranians and Russians know they will lose their Hizbullah bases and the Mediterranean port at Tartus if Assad falls, so they fight for him, with the claim that they are defending the sovereignty of a nation state.
Political assassination was always a staple weapon in the Assad family arsenal. In January 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri told me that Assad had threatened to “break Lebanon over [his] head” because he disputed Assad’s right to choose the president of Lebanon.
“You westerners are fooled by him because he studied in London,” Hariri scolded. “He’s worse than his father.”
Six weeks later, Hariri and 21 other people were killed by a massive car bomb in Beirut.
Hariri deathJacques Chirac
Assad may still end up hanged like Saddam, shot in a gully like Gadafy or on trial like Milosevic. But increasing numbers of western politicians are succumbing to the allure of the dictator. Iraq was better under Saddam and Libya better under Gadafy, we are told. Like his father, Bashar al-Assad sells the illusion of stability.
Putin’s argument has found resonance in high circles in Washington and Paris.
“When we were fighting Hitler, we had to make an alliance with Stalin, who had killed more people than Hitler,” the former foreign minister Hubert Védrine argued this week.