An imminent anniversary will be a painful reminder for a man who grew up as a quiet and studious person and who once had looked forward to a comfortable life as an ophthalmologist. Instead he finds himself a reviled figure soaked in the blood of tens of thousands of his victims and the cause of ‘the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century’, as the UN put it.
It was nine years ago when Syrians, infected by the Arab spring, decided it was also their time for a change, having endured autocratic rule for decades. President Bashar al-Assad, who trained to be a doctor, disagreed and brutally crushed their demonstrations. Little did he expect his actions would tear Syria asunder and trigger a nine-year civil war, creating death, destruction and displacement statistics which are beyond the comprehension of civilised life.
It was truly a myopic move by a man who should have stuck to optical medicine instead of being forced to enter politics and carry on the family dynasty of repression. His family and Alawite (Shia) supporters at the time had Syria and its pressure points firmly under control by controlling the secret police, defence and intelligence systems as well as the government.
Since then, at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed. More than five million have fled the country and their ruined cities. Another million in the north-west are trying to join them. Syrian and Russian planes roam the skies and attack the most innocent of targets with barely a murmur of concern from neighbours or the West. On the ground Assad’s forces are pulverising Idlib, the last remaining province not under government control.
Assad himself is keeping his tall frame well below the parapet, rarely and probably wisely venturing forth. But he did so on television last week and sounded like those dictators who are blind to the fact they have no future. Congratulating his troops who had smashed their way into Idlib with its cowering three million citizens, he said:’This liberation does not mean the end of war and it does not mean… our enemies will surrender. But it means that we rubbed their noses in the dirt as a prelude for complete victory and ahead of their defeat sooner or later. We should not rest, but continue to prepare for coming battles’.
What, you can well imagine despairing Syrians asking, more battles? Haven’t we had enough? Clearly, the plight of his own peoples means nothing to Assad whose priority is that of all tyrants – self-preservation. He has made himself a virtual prisoner in his own country. Syria is now a failed state which is dependent on Russia and Iran to prop it up. Assad has nowhere to run except perhaps a secure Putin dacha. Even if Idlib does return to government control, then what?
Russia and Iran are more interested in regional influence than rehabilitation. In different parts of Syria jihadists of opposing outlooks have taken root, including ISIS and an affiliate related to al-Qaida. Hezbollah has moved in to protect its supply line from Iran to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar are funding rival militias. Turkey has helped itself to a slice of Syria on its border as a buffer zone and means to isolate the Kurds. Ankara has threatened Assad if he tries to retake it. The rest of the area, known as Rojava, remains in the hands of Kurds who will fight to defend it.
In short, Assad, for all his ringing exhortations, has brought on himself an insoluble conundrum. His country is now like a crocodile pit, full of troublesome and violent squatters who have their own separate agenda. Then there is the question of rebuilding cities pulverised by his air force and Russian planes and the terror weapon dangling from Assad’s helicopters, the barrel bomb (68,000 dropped so far, according to one statistic). Assad’s oil and gas-rich Arab neighbours have shown little interest in offering help with reconstruction.
Indeed the world as a whole appears to have shrugged off the years of Assad’s barbarism. Back in 2014, when ISIS brutalised the Yazidi hillside-dwellers, Australia, Britain and the US came to their aid with special air drops of supplies. But that was in neighbouring northern Iraq where, unlike Idlib, there were no Russian planes to stop them. We might well wonder why we and the rest of the world cannot do more to help one million refugees now huddled in tents along the Turkish border in the depths of winter with no future prospects.
The UN is powerless when any criticism of Syria or attempt to meddle in its own affairs will be vetoed by Russia. Talks have gone nowhere because self-interest overrides humanity.
The Assad family have no inkling of the concept of peace. Bashar Assad’s father was involved in three coup attempts before he got his hands on the presidency which lasted 29 years. He ordered his brother in 1982 to suppress restless Moslem Brotherhood supporters in the city of Hama. Estimates of the death toll range from 2000 to 20,000. Even the Arab League was so repelled by Bashar Assad’s actions against demonstrators and subsequently that it expelled Syria from membership.
Assad will dig in even further to save himself. He is forever a marked man. Human rights lawyers have begun the process of having him declared a war criminal. Indeed it’s a wonder he has not been indicted already. His legacy will be a monstrous one. Something like a quarter of Syria’s population have fled the country under Assad’s rule for their own safety. Another million from Idlib would like to follow them except neighbouring Turkey says it already has 2,500,000 refugees and cannot accommodate any more.
The immediate outlook for all of them is grim. An estimated 40% of the 60-million displaced people in the world originate from the Arab region. Many Palestinians have been in camps for three generations. The future for many of the Syrians is the same. Despite Damascus claiming control over the majority of the country, many of those are fearful of returning as long as the vengeful Assad regime remains in place.
Syria is a 21st century calamity. ‘It’s like the end of the world’, said a Syrian NGO quoted by the New York Times surveying the snowbound refugee camp on the Turkish border. ‘We wish the Europeans would strike the government’, said one of the refugees. ‘We wish America would come’. It is wishful thinking as the last thing Western leaders, mindful of their re-election chances, will do is to get entangled again in anything to do with Mideast refugees.
Ever since the Iraq invasion of 2003 and its domino effects, the world has become inured to the wholesale uprooting and displacement of millions of innocent victims in the Arab world in order to satisfy various power struggles. Shocking as it is, we now effectively regard it all as business as usual and shrug it off.
FOOTNOTE. As a young traveller, I passed through Idlib province on the weekly Beirut to Istanbul train as it panted its way across the mountains east and then north to Turkey, connecting with one from Baghdad. It was a three-day journey of harmony and fellowship of different peoples and mountainside picnics when the train paused for extra steam. It is impossible to reconcile those times with today’s state of upheaval. Anyone who has been to Damascus will have thrilled at the magnificence of its ancient architecture, such as the ancient wall of the city, the Great Mosque and the grand souk filled with commerce, food, spices, metalware, exquisite inlaid rosewood bric a brac, jewellery, silks and brocades and so many other objects reflecting an ancient and cultured society. It also has its Christian connections – remember St Paul. It was a city at peace with itself, possibly due to the omnipresence of the mukhabarat, the so-called secret police who were easily recognisable in their shiny dark suits and forever playing with their worry beads as they kept watch. You can be sure Assad still has them there today.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.