What the killing of Gaddafi means to Syria
Two days before Gaddafi was murdered, I was reading the morning newspapers in Beirut and discovered a remarkable story on most front pages.
At the time, the mad ex-emperor of Libya was still hiding in Sirte, but there was this quotation by the US Secretary of State, La Clinton, speaking in Tripoli itself. "We hope he can be captured or killed soon," she said, "so that you don't have to fear him any longer." This was so extraordinary that I underlined La Clinton's words and clipped the article from one of the front pages. (My archives are on paper.) "We hope he can be captured or killed soon." Then bingo. Nato bombs his runaway convoy and the old boy is hauled wounded from a sewage pipe and done away with.
Now in an age when America routinely assassinates its enemies, La Clinton's words were remarkable because they at last acknowledged the truth. Normally, the State Department or the White House churned out the usual nonsense about how Gaddafi or Bin Laden or whoever must be "brought to justice" – and we all know what that means. But this week, the whole business turned much darker. Asked about his personal reaction, Obama the Good said that no one wanted to meet such an end, but that Gaddafi's death should be a lesson "to all dictators around the world". And we all knew what that meant. Principally, the message was to Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Maybe, ran the subtext, they would meet the same sticky end.
So now here I am in Damascus and I've been asking Syrians what they made of the whole business. Whenever I said Gaddafi was a crackpot, they would wholeheartedly agree. But when I spoke to a very senior government official who works directly for the Syrian leadership, he spoke in slightly different terms. "We don't accept any comparisons," he said. "But the seriousness of Gaddafi's killing is that in the West in the future, they are going to say: 'See how the Libyans behave? See how the Arabs behave? See how Muslims behave?' This will be used against Islam. It was humiliating for the Libyans more than it was for Gaddafi, and that is why I fear it will be used against all of us. This is my real concern."
On Syrian television this week, I made the point that Gaddafi was insane and that – whatever else you thought of him – Assad was not. This was met (naturally) by vigorous agreement from the presenter. But wait. I promised to tell readers what happened to the programme. Well, two days ago, quite by chance, I bumped into the journalist who had interviewed me. Alas, he said, he thought the translation and subtitles wouldn't be ready for Saturday night's broadcast. Maybe we could do another interview later. Back to that old saw, I guess: we shall see.
In any event, I was made very much aware by her own personal assistant how "deeply hurt" Bashar al-Assad's wife Asma was at a report in The Independent a couple of weeks ago which suggested that she was indifferent to the plight of civilian opponents of the regime killed by the security forces. The story – not by me – quoted an aid official in Damascus who was present at a meeting with the First Lady, saying that – when asked about the casualties – "there was no reaction".
Needless to say, this report was gobbled up by the Arab media, including al-Jazeera, Assad's most hated TV station. Now Asma al-Assad's assistant has just given me the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's own official Arabic-language account of the meeting. It makes interesting reading. SARC volunteers told the president's wife that they received better treatment from the army "which has a clear leadership" than they did from the intelligence services at the checkpoints across Syria – they said the "muhabarrat" intelligence "enjoys no leadership or clear principles, at least from our point of view" – and that vehicles from the Ministry of Health are sometimes misused by "parties without control and this has created a situation of fear among citizens". Mrs Assad was told how difficult it was for the SARC to work in dangerous areas and to move the wounded.
"Mrs Asma [sic] showed her understanding of the difficulties our volunteers are going through," the SARC report says, "and expressed her deep admiration for their efforts in serving humanity and individual people ... and promised to convey some of their demands to the authorities." Mrs Assad's visit was "informal" and the discussions "friendly".
In the days that followed, the SARC report continued, the behaviour of "security checkpoints" towards their volunteers improved. A subsequent report in the weekly Syria Today quotes Mrs Assad as telling the Red Crescent volunteers that they "must remain neutral and independent during this time, focusing solely on humanitarian needs".
So there you have it. Certainly not indifferent – but hardly a ringing condemnation of human rights abuses. Of course, I can see Asma al-Assad's problem. Had she spoken out directly against the killing of protesters, of course, the world's press and television would not have said that Mrs Assad stood up for human rights. The headlines would have been political, and would have read: "Syrian President attacked by wife." The truth, I fear, is that once war begins, you just can't win. Even if you are the wife of the president.