THE DEAD-END ROADS TO AND FROM DAMASCUS
Fifteen years ago this month, Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father to become president of Syria. Having spent some years studying and living in France and England, he had hopes of a Western-style liberalisation and development and turning his country into the Switzerland of the Middle East. Those ambitions proved naively fanciful and now he finds himself inextricably wedged, the country under his control shrinking and the outlook hopeless.
Assad’s report card is a shocking one. A four-year-old civil war. More than 200,000 people killed. A total of 7.6 million Syrians displaced inside their own country, according to the UNHCR. Another 3.9 million driven into exile or living as refugees outside their country. In other words, half the country’s population either dead or driven from their homes.
Two international terrorist groups – ISIS and al-Nusra (an arm of al-Qaeda) – now control much of northern Syria. More than half the country is no longer in government hands. Syria’s armed forces are demoralised. The army is only half the strength it was four years ago due to death and desertion. Syria, which once prided itself on its secularism, is now racked by sectarianism. Christians have fled for their lives. The economy is in a shambles and unemployment is at record levels. Much of the once vibrant Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, is in ruins. Its main allies are only Russia and the leper of most of the Arab world, Iran.
If all this were not bad enough for a country’s ruler, there is more. Assad is said to have locked up 200,000 opponents. He has been implicated by the UN in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.S., E.U., Canada and Australia among others have imposed sanctions. Syrian assets in those countries have been frozen.
Despite all this, Assad carries on almost as if it’s business as usual. The U.S., some Arab states and now finally neighbouring Turkey have got involved. But that has been only from the air and their targets have been just ISIS and al-Qaeda and for Ankara the Kurdish PKK militants exploiting the turmoil. President Obama once threatened to intervene when Assad was accused of using chemical weapons, but later thought better of it and still does. The CIA has been training and arming the Free Syrian Army and other anti-Assad rebels, but they are in disarray.
Last year, a European Council on Foreign Relations report found that:
‘The Syrian economy lies in ruins. Assets and infrastructure have been destroyed, half of the population lives below the poverty line, and the human development index has fallen back to where it stood 37 years ago. It is estimated that even with average annual growth rate of 5 percent it would take nearly 30 years to recover Syria’s 2010 GDP value’.
How did it come to this? Bashar Assad was never meant to be president. His father, Hafez al-Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, ruled Syria for 30 years with the help of patronage, a strong army, the Mukhabarat secret police, smart politics and protecting all religions. His successor was supposed to be his eldest son, Bassel. He was killed in a car crash in 1994.
‘His name (Bassel) summoned images of a vocal, shrewd, dynamic man who was a parachutist, a ladies’ man, an accomplished athlete and an outgoing statesman’, wrote Syrian journalist Majid Rafizadeh in The Atlantic. But ‘Bashar did not seek out recognition or popularity. He had no interest in being in the middle of politics. The people of Syria viewed Bashar as a nerd, not someone with the instincts or drive to lead a country’.
When Bassel died, his father summoned home the next son in line to prepare to replace him. That was Bashar, who had been studying in Paris and London. He wanted to be an ophthalmologist and it was said all he aspired to was to have a family and a comfortable life, probably in Europe. His early introduction to the levers of power was being despatched to Lebanon as an unlikely gauleiter to keep an eye on the Syrian security presence there.
His father died in 2000. Bashar Assad, with his lugubrious looks, diffident manner and beanpole figure, was now in charge. He introduced some of his ideas in what was known as the Damascus Spring. But he tried to run politically before he could walk and within a year those good intentions were scuttled. The Damascus regime settled back into its old ways.
The turning point came in 2011 when Syrians became infected by the Arab Spring demonstrations which began in Tunisia and spread to Libya and Egypt. Enough of that, decided Assad. Egged on by his widowed mother, he cracked down on it in the same way as his father had crushed a Moslem Brotherhood uprising in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982 with the loss of thousands of lives. Little did he realise he had sowed the seeds of a real revolution and now the disintegration of his country as hostile forces surged in to fill the vacuums created in the north.
Assad emerged from the twilight shadows only this week to make his first public speech in a year. He admitted to what most Syrians already knew about the state of their country and the armed forces. ‘The word defeat does not exist in the Syrian army’s dictionary’, he said disingenuously. ‘We will resist and we will win’.
Too late, said Amos Gilad, a senior official at neighbouring Israel’s Defence Ministry. ‘Syria is gone. Syria is dying’, he said as quoted by the Jerusalem Post. ‘The funeral will be declared in due time. This Bashar Assad, he will be remembered in history textbooks as the one who lost Syria’.
Assad’s best hope may be a rump state carved out of his shrinking territory and dominated by his minority Alawites. After all, Syria was an artificial state in the first place, part of the spoils Britain and France cynically divided up as the Ottoman empire crumbled a century ago. Who will run the rest of the country is anyone’s guess as so many fractious parties fight for possession, power and influence.
ISIS with its grandiose caliphate already controls the north-east area along the Iraqi border. It will not want to surrender any influence or territory. The Nusra Front has the backing of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the usual source of support for undesirables in the region. Its intentions are not clear yet. Although it has been involved in suicide bombings, news reports suggest it is trying to ‘rebrand’ itself as a respectable anti-ISIS/Assad Syrian organisation with no links to al-Qaeda.
Then there is Iran. It sees Syria as a conduit to arm its fellow-Shiites, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, said Iran with the help of Hezbollah and other militias is building ‘a state within a state in Syria, an insurance policy to protect itself against any future Assad demise’.
Then there is Turkey, which shares the longest border of all with Syria. It has exploited the ISIS presence to break its truce with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which it – along with the West, including Australia – regards as a terrorist organisation. However, the Kurds, with their own sovereign state ambitions, have been doing as much as anyone in resisting ISIS.
As for the U.S., the New York Times editorialised: ‘Having failed to reach a consensus over the scope and nature of an authorisation of war that would have set parameters for Washington’s involvement in Iraq and Syria, lawmakers appear resigned to allow the Obama administration to slide even more deeply into a complex war’.
In short, it is a fine old mess. None of this will soothe the nerves of Bashar Assad and his family as they view the increasing uncertainty of their future. Even their Alawite stronghold, Syria’s main port of Latakia, is under threat from dissident forces. His father, the Assad patriarch, would have been aghast.
A century later, Syria’s borders can expect to be redrawn no matter what happens, though not as cynically as before.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.