BBC’s interview with Assad; Fisk on Hafez

Some interesting observations from the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, 19th June 2010:

Hafez Assad was the kind of Middle Eastern leader about whom people used words like calculating, ruthless, and dominating. He sent in tanks and artillery to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands…

Bashar Assad is a very different man. On the couple of times I have met him he has been friendly, even charming, and answered the questions he has been asked…

Syria under Bashar Assad is trying to face in all directions at the same time. Perhaps improbably, the policy is working pretty well.

Countries who want to get closer include Russia, France, Turkey and diplomatically ambitious Brazil. Iran has been an ally since his father’s time. Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hezbollah, Israel’s implacable enemy in Lebanon.

The Americans want a rapprochement, as long as he drops some of his troublesome old friends in Beirut and Tehran. That he says he won’t do – even though the Iran connection puts Syria dangerously close to the centre of the growing and dangerous crisis over Iran’s nuclear plans.

Here in Damascus the regime operates on different wavelengths at once as well. Facebook is blocked in Syria. But the first lady has her own page with several thousand friends.

Also, Robert Fisk gives an intelligent assessment of Ridwan al-Ziadeh’s report on the brutality of life under Hafez.

Years of Fear covers the three-decade rule of Hafez el-Assad, Syria’s former air force commander whose long battle to maintain his Alawi rule and whose ferocious struggle against violent Islamist enemies clogged the fetid prisons of Syria with thousands of political prisoners. Using security forces who were often corrupt, he confronted an ever more violent sectarian guerrilla movement whose first major assault came on 16 June 1979 when an army captain, Ibrahim al-Yusuf, led the massacre of Alawi students at the Aleppo artillery school….

The Hama uprising in February 1982, in which the old, rebel-held city was virtually destroyed by tank and shell-fire, caused up to 15,000 deaths, according to Ziadeh’s report – some put the figure at 20,000. What Ziadeh oddly fails to mention is the underground fighting in Hama in which girl suicide bombers hurled themselves against Syrian troops, and previous violence in the city in which Islamists slaughtered entire families of Baath party officials. There was nothing exclusive about Syria’s mass-murderers.

Ziadeh is an interesting figure. I saw him speak last year when he was attached to Chatham House. He seems very intelligent, though soft spoken and more of an academic than a potential opposition leader. He is certainly doing some good work continuing to highlight the darker side of Syria’s past and present, and he presents a case that needs to be heard.  

Unfortunately, at least based on his work that I have read and witnessed, this is not backed up with any realistic proposals for reform. Much of his work at Chatham House, for example, was based on a flimsy comparison with post-Communist Czechoslovakia, proposing it as a model for democratisation applicable to Syria. Yet Syria has no EU carrot as did the Czechs to encourage reform. Moreover, they were surrounded by other states moving in the same direction. In a neighbourhood of autocracies, what is the incentive for Syria to change?  Whilst Ziadeh is right to highlight the atrocities of the past, he would do well to tie them to realistic proposals for the present, or else end up sounding like the great throng of bitter exiles, shouting angrily from the sidelines where only American neo-cons will listen.

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