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Syria: Bashar Lives Up to His Name

Anybody can claim to be an opponent of the present Syrian government, but what kind of a regime is it proposed to establish in its place?

They have been calling it “the Arab Spring”. Various dictators around the Mediterranean have been overthrown, and successor regimes, more or less distinct from the ones that went before, have been installed. Tunisia’s dictator was thrown out first, to be followed by the dictators of Egypt, Libya, and the Yemen. Now there is a more or less open rebellion in Syria, aimed at overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, the local despot.

The lands stretching across from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf were among the earliest areas to develop what is often called “civilization” - that is, human beings living en masse in larger and larger cities. The Syrian city of Aleppo, for example, has been continuously inhabited for at least five thousand years, and Damascus probably for nearly as long. Several religions trace their origins to this part of the world. Fervent believers in the book of Genesis have often speculated that the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the talkative serpent, and the extremely fertile tree which produced “knowledge” as well as apples were located somewhere in the vicinity. This move to city-dwelling was the result of the spread of the idea of private property, where the land and trading concerns, and anything else which produced wealth, belonged to a small upper class, while the rest of the population, virtually propertyless, worked for the benefit of this group of owners.

Separate states came into being, each ruled by a group of owners. Inevitably, violence became common as people tried to seize economic and political power for themselves within a state, and as each state tried to impose its power on neighbouring states. And so the human race began to know organized warfare. As societies based on private property became more common there was more strife and more violence, and the lands to the east of the Mediterranean became the scene of repeated conflicts. Surrounded by great land masses – Asia to the east, Africa to the south-west, and Europe to the north-west – invading forces came repeatedly from all directions; great armies murdered, looted, raped, and destroyed; empires rose and fell. The result was a great hotchpotch of peoples, each believing themselves to be racially different from those around them, and having different and hostile religious beliefs and loyalties.

Imperialist carve-up

A hundred years ago, this area was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Turkey. Then came the First World War of 1914-18, which the allied powers claimed was to protect the rights of small nations, but which turned out in the end (as you might have expected) to be more about extending the rights of big nations - or the rulers of those nations, at any rate. The Ottoman Empire was on the losing side in that war, and so was carved up at the end of it for the benefit of the victors. The lands between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf were shared between two of the victorious Allies, Britain and France. Britain got (for example) a stretch of territory which it divided up into three separate states, Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine; and France divided up its share into Syria and Lebanon – the latter was kept separate because it seemed it might well have a Catholic majority (like France).

After the share-out at the Treaty of Versailles, both Britain and France had to deal with rebellions in the newly acquired territories. Iraqis who objected to the British take-over were bombed into submission. One Arthur Harris was a young squadron-leader there.  He had found how effective (and risk-free) it was to bomb obnoxious tribesmen on the North-West Frontier in India, and now he did the same in Iraq, helped by the fact that the rebellious Iraqis had no aircraft or anti-aircraft defences. The young airman is supposed to have said, “the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.”

Bomber Harris was able to put these lessons to good use in the Second World War when he organized the carpet bombing of working-class areas in German cities – that was where the factory workers lived; the houses were smaller and closer together, and of course bombing richer areas would not kill or injure so many of the people who actually did the work. The French had the same problems in Syria as the British did in Iraq; Syria saw a widespread revolt in 1925-7. Fortunately the French were able to bring in troops with much better modern armaments against the lightly armed Syrians, so they were able to establish their superiority.

Coups and counter-coups

Then came the Second World War, which revealed that both Britain and France had now fallen into the ranks of second-class powers, and neither was able to keep up its colonial empire. Iraq became independent, and so did Syria. The prize of forming the government of Syria and ruling it on behalf of its native upper class was vigorously contested. Coups and counter-coups were constant: in the ten years between 1946 and 1956 there were twenty different governments and four newly-drafted constitutions. The same story of violent take-overs continued, even including a “union” with Egypt in 1958, which fell apart in 1961. But such regular upheavals are not good for business; and in 1963 the so-called “Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party” took over. It was not Socialist at all, of course; it had a programme under which the state would run industries and would enforce stability without bothering too much about free speech and so forth.

For a time the fighting for office continued, but now the hostilities were between factions within the Ba’ath Party. A new group seized power in 1966. One of the successful plotters, Hafez al-Assad, became Minister for Defence. After four years and a final capture of authority: Hafez al-Assad became President, and, in fact, dictator. (The two leading members of the former government went to jail.) Hafez was an Alawite, that is, a member of a Shia Muslim sect, and before long Alawites were put in positions of control in the army and in every government body. This was particularly necessary, because most Muslims in Syria are Sunnis, and many Sunnis regard the Alawites as heretics. Any opposition was dealt with as every dictator deals with it: imprisonment, torture, death. Hafez is accused of carrying out thousands of extra-judicial killings. An attempted assassination in 1980 failed: the machine-gun missed. Within hours, 1,200 Islamists held in jail had been slaughtered in their cells at Tadmor Prison by armed groups led by Rifaat al-Assad, the dictator’s brother. But after the confusion and uncertainty of the previous decades most of the Syrian upper class was happy to go along with the new regime. As for the ordinary Syrians, with Hafez, now in control of the newspapers, the radio, and every other means of information, was able to create a nationwide feeling that stability was better than the disorder and constant shifts of the past and began building up his own personality cult. As the Russians had been propagandized into supporting Stalin and the Germans brainwashed into supporting Hitler, so the Syrians were now conned into supporting Hafez.

There was still trouble from some malcontents, especially from those who fancied becoming the rulers themselves. In 1982 there was an insurrection in the city of Hama led by the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted to establish a stricter form of Islam. Hafez ordered the troops in – picked formations commanded by his brother Rifaat – who bombarded Hama, destroying much of the old city and killing (estimates differ) between 15,000 and 40,000 Syrians, nearly all civilians. Rifaat, it seems, later boasted that he had killed 38,000 people in Hama. Two years afterwards Rifaat tried a coup of his own, aiming to replace his brother; it failed, and Rifaat now lives in exile in London. But being the brother of the dictator he had been able to assemble extensive business interests, and he now lives in some comfort in a ten million pound mansion off Park Lane. If you kill one person you will probably end up in jail; but killing thousands seems to have fewer repercussions.

Hereditary despot

Like many dictators, Hafez wanted to be the boss even after he was dead. He had several sons, and the eldest, Bassel, was groomed to succeed him. His second son, Bashar, was allowed to go his own way, and he became a doctor. In 1992 he came to England and studied to become an ophthalmologist – an eye specialist. Then in 1994 Bassel was killed in a car crash. Without asking the Syrians or (apparently) even his own family Hafez now decided that Bashar would have to be the next strong man. And when Hafez died in 2000 the tame Syrian parliament that had previously passed an Act to say the President had to be at least 40 now hurriedly passed another Act to say that he had to be at least 34, which, by great good luck, was exactly Bashar’s age. So Bashar was promoted to field-marshal, which is a rank not many eye doctors have reached, and took over as dictator. There was a “vote”, of course, in which Bashar was the only candidate, and it was announced that 97.3 percent of the Syrians had voted for him. (An improbable result: in our discordant society it is unlikely that 97 percent of voters would agree what day of the week it was). He ruled for seven years, and then another “vote” was held.  This time the officials in charge thought it would be a good idea to claim an even better result, so they said that 97.6 percent had supported the dictator.

Bashar has proved to be a chip off the old block: dissent is dealt with by torture, imprisonment, and death. When early in 2011 a big demonstration was held against his rule, the demonstrators were chased away by the security forces. The regime announced first that there had been no demonstration, and second that there had been a demonstration in favour of Bashar. Protests continued in many towns and cities across the country; soldiers began deserting and taking their guns with them.  Now Syria appears to be on the brink of civil war, with the army moving in to kill any who oppose Bashar and bringing up artillery to pound any supposedly disloyal areas. Districts regained by government forces are decorated with corpses, either with their throats cut or decapitated. Some estimates of the dead put the total as high as 8,000. Many other countries have decided that Bashar cannot survive and regularly issue statements deploring Bashar’s excesses, though Russia and China, in both of which democracy is a rude word, cannot apparently see anything wrong with Bashar’s dictatorship. It is curious to hear the American government, rulers of a country which killed at least 100,000 Iraqis (many think the death toll was at least half a million, or even a million) claiming how shocked they are by a death toll so much smaller than the one they have achieved.

Some people in Syria still support Bashar. They include Alawites, since the privileged position they have held since Hafez took power may provoke revenge if Bashar falls; the Druze, an unorthodox Muslim sect; and the Christians of half a dozen different denominations. All of them fear that if Bashar is succeeded by a Sunni government extreme Islamists may persecute minorities. And, of course, Bashar’s close friends and relatives back him to the hilt.  Bashar’s wife is called Asma. Her parents were Syrians living in London, and she was brought up in England.  And while Bashar’s trusted soldiers and militias polish up new ways to torture and murder the regime’s opponents, Asma has been ordering luxury goods from Paris, including a £10,000 consignment of chandeliers and silver candlesticks.  Why shouldn’t Bashar’s inner circle champion him?

The opponents of Bashar are from every point in the political spectrum, including some who, if they gained power, might well establish a regime compared with which Bashar would look like Little Bo Peep. Those who opposed Stalin included loathsome dictators like Hitler; those who opposed Hitler included loathsome dictators like Stalin. Anybody can claim, probably with absolute sincerity, to be a zealous opponent of the present Syrian Government; but a much more significant question is this – what kind of a regime is it proposed to establish in place of Bashar’s? There are those who think that if Bashar was killed out of hand like Gaddafi of Libya, or hanged like Saddam Hussein of Iraq, or put on trial like Mubarak of Egypt, or chased away into exile like Ben Ali of Tunisia, then democracy with free speech and free elections would miraculously appear fully formed. That may, to say the least, be over-optimistic. No one knows exactly what the future holds; but it is certain that at the present time anybody or any group replacing the present rulers of Syria will continue to run Syrian capitalism for the benefit of the Syrian capitalists, whatever cosmetic reforms they may think it necessary to make.