Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will only go if his own tanks turn against him

Syria's President Bashar Assad waves to his supporters after prayers in the northern town of Raqqa (AP)

In Damascus earlier this month, Syrian state television asked me for an interview on events in Syria.

With much trepidation, I accepted, promising the presenter he would not like all I said, but warning – a bit of Fisk blackmail, this – that any censored words would be relayed to readers of my column. The interview went ahead and I said that President Bashar al-Assad was "running out of time – fast".

The Arab people, I added, could no longer be infantilised; there was clearly an armed insurgency under way in Syria to overthrow the regime – foreign correspondents must be allowed to visit Homs and other areas where a host of YouTube pictures show protesters being shot down. When I was told later that the translation had not been finished in time, I smiled with my usual cynicism.

But almost incredibly, the interview duly aired on Syrian state television – and to my utter astonishment, they ran the lot (they used near-perfect subtitling), including the remarks about Assad "running out of time – fast".



What happened? Did this have the President's approval? Or was the government – or some part of the dictatorship – trying to show that they were in no doubt about how serious the near-civil war had become? I don't know. And my Middle Eastern crystal ball broke many years ago. But I'll hazard a dangerous prediction: Assad's time is running out, fast – but don't believe the State Department and the Washington "tink thanks" (as I call them) and the EU or the Arab League. He ain't going yet.



Even the words of Jordan's King Abdullah this week were slightly bent by the press and television coverage when he supposedly told the BBC that Assad should "step down". What he actually said was that "if I was in his [Assad's] shoes, I would step down". Which is not quite the same thing. Far more important was that section of the interview – one of his best, by the way, and I'm not his majesty's fan – in which he said that if Assad stepped down, only to be replaced by the same "system" (ie the Baath party), the problem would not be ended. Too true. And running alongside King Abdullah's words, I thought, was the faint hope that perhaps Assad could still take the initiative and honour all his fine words (new constitution, political pluralism, real democracy, etc). Certainly, the West's pompous predictions of Assad's imminent demise – based more on YouTube than the reality on the ground – are hopelessly optimistic. True, there are deserters from the Syrian army. But you don't win revolutions with Kalashnikov AK-47s. Only the desertion of a tank unit or two plus generals – Libya-style – could have any chance of that. And so far, there is none. Assad is not Gaddafi.



Furthermore, Russia's military support is not going to end. Only nine days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria, the joint director-general of the federal Russian service of military cooperation, Viatcheslav Djirkaln, said that there would be "no restrictions at all on arms deliveries to Syria". The Russians talk, of course, of "contractual obligations".



Nor is that surprising. The truth is that Russia was once Libya's only arms supplier; it was selling combat jets, frigates, tanks and anti-aircraft systems to Colonel Gaddafi after the West's 1974 arms embargo and had 3,500 advisers in the country. Its ships could refuel at the Tripoli naval base. Now it is associated with the dead and hated regime. Russia was 73rd on the list of nations to recognise the Libyan National Transitional Council.



So now the Syrian city of Tartous contains the only 24-hour port open to the Russian navy in the Mediterranean. Without Tartous, every Russian naval vessel in the sea would have to return through the Bosphorous to Odessa for every nut, screw and cigarette packet it needs. Friends, as they say, need each other.



Does the Arab League's threat of suspension really matter? I suspect not – but clearly the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem thinks very differently. He said that the league had taken "an extremely dangerous step" in threatening Syria and that US support for the league's decision was "incitement". Armour had already left Syrian cities, prisoners were being released, armed insurgents were being offered an amnesty. YouTube bounced back with video of a Russian-made armoured vehicle firing thousands of rounds down a Homs street and a photograph of a half-naked murdered Syrian, hands tied behind his back, lying in a Homs street. But murdered by whom?



One thing is now clear. Quite apart from the massive civilian casualties, even opponents of the regime now admit that Assad faces an armed insurgency. This may originally have been a myth promoted by the regime, but the monster has now been born. Anti-Assad activists now openly speak of "armed insurgents". Sixteen civilians were killed in Deraa three days ago. But 15 soldiers were killed on the same day in the same city. Who killed them? That's what we need to know.

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