With that history, why did we think Syria would fall?
Published 06/03/2012 | 08:00
In my 1912 Baedeker guide to Syria, a page and a half is devoted to the city of Homs. In tiny print, it says that, "in the plain to the south-east, you come across the village of Baba Amr.
A visit to the arcaded bazaar is worthwhile - here you will find beautiful silks. To the north of Homs, on a square, there is an artillery barracks..." The bazaar has long since been demolished, though the barracks passed from Ottoman into French and ultimately into Baathist hands; for 27 days last month, this bastion has been visiting hell on what was once the village of Baba Amr.
Once a Roman city, where the crusaders committed their first act of cannibalism - eating their dead Muslim opponents - Homs was captured by Saladin in 1174.
Under post-First World War French rule, the settlement became a centre of insurrection and, after independence, the very kernel of Baathist resistance to the first Syrian governments. By early 1964, there were battles in Homs between Sunnis and Alawi Shia.
A year later, the young Baathist army commander of Homs, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Tlas, was arresting his pro-regime comrades. Is the city's history becoming a little clearer now?
As one of the Sunni nouveaux riche who would support the Alawi regime, Tlas became defence minister in Hafez al-Assad's Baathist government. Under their post-1919 mandate, the French had created a unit of "Special Forces" in which the Alawis were given privileged positions - one of their strongholds was the military academy in Homs. One of the academy's most illustrious students under Hafez al-Assad's rule - graduating in 1994 - was his son Bashar. Bashar's uncle, Adnan Makhlouf, graduated second to him; Makhlouf is today regarded as the corrupting element in the Assad regime.
Homs lies deep in the heart of all Syrians, Sunni and Alawite alike. So why were we so surprised when the "Free Syrian Army" fled the city? Did we really expect the Assad regime to run because a few hundred men with Kalashnikovs wanted to stage a miniature uprising? When the West happily adopted the illusions of Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton - and the Arab Gulf states whose demands for Syrian "democracy" are matched by their refusal to provide this same democracy - the Syrians understood the hypocrisy.
French elections, Russian elections, Iranian elections, Syrian referendums - and, of course, US elections: it's amazing how much "democracy" can derail sane policies in the Middle East. Putin supports an Arab leader (Assad) who announces that he has done his best "to protect my people, so I don't feel I have anything to be blamed for...". I suppose that would be Putin's excuse after his army butchered the Chechens.
As it happens, I don't remember Britain's PM saying this about Irish Catholics on Bloody Sunday in 1972 - but perhaps Northern Ireland's Catholics didn't count as Britain's "people"? No, I'm not comparing like with like. Grozny has more in common with Baba Amr than Derry. But there is a distressing habit of denouncing anyone who tries to talk reality. Those who claimed the IRA would eventually find their way into government in Northern Ireland - I was one - were denounced as being "in cahoots with terrorists".
The truth is that the Syrians occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years. If the Baathists could smother Lebanon in so powerful a sisterly embrace for so long, what makes anyone think they will relinquish Syria itself easily?