While Syria's protesters demand freedom, President has stark message for his people
He was not a humble President. He did not give way. There were hints, of course – an end to emergency legislation, "reforms" – but when he spoke yesterday, trying to calm a crisis that has seen more than 60 people killed in a fortnight and threatens his very office, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria did not give the impression of a man on the run.
Was it Libya that gave him the "oomph" to go on, the encouragement to stand up and say that "reform is not a seasonable issue" – an accurate translation of his belief that Syria does not have to conform to the Middle East revolution? Either way, the Baath party is going to fight on. Assad remains the President of Syria. No change.
Well, of course, we shall see. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is not a wise example to follow in time of need. Friday is another day, the traditional day of memorial and trial and questioning. If he can get through tomorrow without further killing in Deraa and Latakia, Assad may make it. He is young, his wife – wrongly derided by those who hate Syria – is a great asset to him, and his rule has banished the worst excesses of his father, Hafez. But – and it is a big "but" – torture does continue, the iniquities of the mukhabarat security services continue, freedom in Syria is as hard to find as an oasis in the desert, and the Syrian parliament remains, in the words of Al Jazeera's analyst Marwan Beshara, "a circus of support".
Yet there are more "buts" in Syria. It is a hard, tough country, without the avenues to free speech which were available in Egypt, to be sure, but a centre of Arab nationalism. Not for nothing do Syrians shout Um al Arabiya Wahida ("mother of one Arab nation"). Not for nothing do Syrians remember that they and they alone opposed the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region between France and Britain in 1916 with force of arms, their horse-riding army mowed down by French tanks at the battle of Maysaloon, their king given the monarchy of Iraq as a consolation prize by Winston Churchill.
This does not justify Bashar's autocratic rule. But it says something about it. Syrians do not obey the rules. Syrians do not follow the other Arabs like sheep. They fought harder than any others for a Palestinian-Israeli peace – which Assad described as "stagnant" yesterday, the unrest a "test for the nation" rather than a test for the President. In truth, the Hauran region – Deraa is in the Hauran, the scene of a fearsome series of government killings last week – has always been rebellious, even under French rule. But can Bashar al-Assad hold his country together?
He has managed, with a minority Alawite power (for which read Shia), to bring the Sunni Muslim majority of Syria into the economic establishment. Indeed, the Sunnis are the economy of Syria, a powerful elite who have no interest in unrest, disunity or foreign plots. It was odd that Assad talked about foreign "conspiracies" yesterday. It's an old adage that does him no credit; foreign "conspiracies" have always been discovered when dictators feel unsafe. Yet Damascus has been attacked by Israeli agents and Saddamist agents and Turkish right-wing agents over the past 40 years. It has a resonance, this talk of the moamarer – the "plot" – which makes Syrians into patriots rather than freedom fighters.
Of course, there is a lot wrong with Syria – and Bashar al-Assad may have pushed his luck yesterday, failing to announce the "reforms" and freedoms that Syrians expected of him. Instead of "God, Syria and Bashar", it was "God, Syria and my People" – but was that enough? He would not make reforms under pressure – "reforms", by the way, means democracy – but he surely is under pressure when government snipers have shot down the innocent in the streets of Syria's cities. He may not be in a mood for concessions. But is Syria not in need of these?
Its economy floats near bankruptcy – it was judged by the Swedish diplomatic corps to be unaffected by the West's economic catastrophe on the grounds that it did not really exist – and its Kurdish minority in the north are in a state of semi-revolt. But Assad has two friends who give him power: the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Republic of Iran. If the Israelis need peace in Lebanon, they need Assad, and if Assad wants to maintain his regional power, he needs Iran. Syria is the Arab gate through which Iran can walk. Iran is the Muslim gate through which Assad – and remember, he is an Alawite and therefore a Shia – can walk.
It is all too easy for Madame Clinton to berate Syria for killing its own people – a phrase she does not, of course, use for Bahrain – but the Americans need Syria to extract their last troops from Iraq. It is also easy to turn Syria's problems into sectarianism. Nikolaos Van Dam, a brilliant Dutch diplomat, wrote a fine book emphasising that the struggle for power in Syria lay with the Alawites and that this minority effectively governed the country.
Yet Syria has always remained a unitary state, and it has complied with the West's demands for security co-operation – until the Americans came across the border into Syria and shot up a Syrian security agent's house. So compliant has it been that the US actually sent a poor Canadian to Damascus – "renditioned", in the popular phrase – to be atrociously tortured and kept in a sewer until the Americans realised he was innocent and sheepishly allowed him to return to Toronto.
These, needless, to say, are not issues which are going to be discussed on the television news shows or by the US Secretary of State – who is so concerned about the innocents of Libya that her air force is bombing Gaddafi but is so little concerned about the innocents of Syria that her air force will definitely not be bombing Syria.
Syria needs to be renewed. It does need an end to emergency laws, a free media and a fair judiciary and the release of political prisoners and – herewith let it be said – an end to meddling in Lebanon. That figure of 60 dead, a Human Rights Watch estimate, may in fact be much higher. Tomorrow, President Bashar al-Assad will supposedly tell us his future for Syria. It better be good.