What exactly is happening in Syria, and what is the West doing about it? This is not a simple question, to put it mildly, and one has no real way of knowing, but one gets two distinct impressions as one reads the papers.
The first impression is that President Bashar al-Assad is winning his war. This war has been going on for two years, and if the papers were to have been believed, ought to have been over some considerable time ago. But Assad, unlike Mubarak, has not been overthrown; neither, like the now forgotten President of Tunisia, has he fled the country. This tells us two things: Assad can count on the support of a considerable section of the Syrian population: his own Alawite people in particular will back him at all costs, and other groups will offer more passive support (more on that later). Between them, this alliance of minorities and interest groups provides a sufficient basis for survival.
That Assad has chosen not to flee and live the comfortable life of a dictator in exile, tells us something about his personal disposition. Supposedly mild-mannered in private, it may be that he has a steely determination not to lose what he inherited from his father. It is also possible, even likely, that the people around him, in particular the Army chiefs, will not let him throw in the towel. The Alawites of Syria simply have too much to lose: so, Bashar stays, their figurehead, while the real power lies elsewhere.
I have just been in contact with my friends in Aleppo who tell me that much of that beautiful city is now in ruins, though not the Christian quarter in which they live. Life in Aleppo is in fact quiet, even “normal”, but resembles Beirut in the 1980s. There is a line down the city dividing east from west. One side is under rebel control and the other is in the hands of the government, and one cannot cross from one side to the other.
Those who remember the Lebanese civil war, will remember that this sort of ghastly stalemate can go on for years. Just as the Lebanese war was a proxy war, so too is the Syrian, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side, backing the rebels, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other, backing the government. As for the powers beyond the Middle East, Russia has lined up with the government, and Britain and the USA seem to want to line up with the rebels. There are some pretty unsavoury people on the rebel side; but it also goes without saying that there is nothing savoury about Iran and Hezbollah either. Or President Assad, for that matter. And that is putting it mildly.
When I visited Syria, Bashar’s father was still in power, and he and his two sons’ portraits were everywhere. (The elder of the sons, Basil, was dead by that time.) These triple portraits were referred to as “The Blessed Trinity” by the people I knew. They did not care for the personality cult around the Assad family, but one had the impression that this was the price they had to pay, albeit with some reluctance, if they wanted to live in a peaceful and secular Syria.
A Bishop spoke to me about Bashar Al-Assad some years later. The Catholic bishops had had a meeting with the President on his accession and asked him about their pipe dream, opening a Catholic University in Damascus. Bashar was sympathetic, but said he could not allow it, on the grounds that if he were to allow a Catholic University, he would have to allow all religions to open confessional universities. Without anything being said, they all knew what that would mean: extremism and fragmentation.
Yes, it was the stability of the graveyard; and it was an economic timewarp, full of American cars from the 1950’s; but it was happy country as far as I could see, and a beautiful one, and a country at peace.
My friends in Aleppo who were so good to me when I visited them, are now praying and hoping for an Assad victory. Can you blame them? The Christians of Syria have no real choice in the matter. They have been a tolerated, indeed a privileged, minority under the Ba’athist regime (as they were in Iraq); if the regime falls, their fate will be that of Iraq’s Christians. They cannot understand, indeed are completely bewildered by, what I told them, namely that the British government is considering arming their enemies. They pray that this will not happen, and so do I.
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