Al Assad and his wife, Asma, in Moscow in 2005. Photocredit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/byammar/2085667933/
It is now a year since the first protests in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. According to the BBC, the UN says 8,000 people have been killed, whilst over 200,000 have fled their homes. Many are missing. In the face of widespread international condemnation, the regime has continued its crackdown on dissent. Shelling continues and there is still a large security presence in many cities. 100 tanks have stormed the city of Daraa, according to CNN. Homs, the besieged city, continues to be bombed. Russia has insisted that it will continue to sell arms to Syria.
Protests began on 15th March 2011, in the southern city of Daraa. The protests began as a “Day of Rage”, reported CNN, but now continue one year on. The UN Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, met Assad to try to reach a diplomatic solution. But officials say that Assad will not do anything until the rebels put their arms down. Economic sanctions continue, whilst the Syrian opposition grows, along with military defections. The regime continues to refer to opposition as armed terrorist groups. Commentators mostly urge caution and hope for sanctions to take their toll, or ask for help at least to be given to the opposition. There is one hawk, of course – Senator John McCain, of the USA.
“The people of Syria need our help,” said Baroness Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief. “They want peace, security and stability, so they can get on with their lives. We must do everything we can to stop the violence and end the suffering of people caught in the conflict,” quoted on CNN.
What about Assad? According to a cache of emails that has come to light, purporting to be between Assad and his inner circle, Assad and his family have continued to live the high life. His wife, Asma al-Assad, has blithely gone shopping for expensive jewelry and furniture, including chandeliers, a marble topped table, and a pair of crystal encrusted stilletoes. She spent ten thousand pounds on candlesticks. Signs of the crisis have crept in, though, as she was also interested in a BulletBlocker armoured jacket for her husband. The emails also reveal that the president and his coterie have a taste for YouTube clips, including one from America’s Got Talent, of a magic trick in which a man is sawn in half; and a picture of Nicolas Sarkozy standing on a box next to George W Bush. The headline was “Funny!” Assad also sent aides a link to a video recreating the siege of homs with toys and biscuits. The Guardian, which has the cache, has gone to great lengths to check the emails against established facts.
A man in conflict. The emails also show that Assad has been offered sanctuary by the daughter of the Emir of Qatar, and has received advice from Hussein Mortada, a Lebanese businessman with connections to Iran. The Guardian said the emails show a man “lurching between self-pity, defiance and flippancy as he swapped links to amusing video footage with his aides and wife.” The messages reveal that he is advised by two US educated media advisors, who speak to him informally, and refer to his brilliance.
A waiting game. It’s “uncomfortable” to say it, said The Daily Telegraph, but the last few weeks have been “good” for Assad. He’s clawed back lost territory along the borders. He’s “seen off” Kofi Annan; he’s “made an empty gesture” with calling for parliamentary elections. We must hope that “the evisceration of Syria’s economy” will sweep him away. But the conflict will continue. Britain “should show patience and a sense of sombre realism”, not call for intervention.
We should at least help the opposition. At least, said The Times, Britain and America are on the same side in their attitude to Syria, and are “accountable to informed and broadly peaceable electorates”, and have a “good chance of prevailing in the end against barbarism.” Both David Cameron and Barack Obama are “confident” that Assad will be “toppled.” If this can’t be done “by military intervention” then they should be “ready with coordinated assistance on a massive scale for those he has so cruelly abused.”
But is it enough to make gestures? Obama’s talking about aid to opposition, pressure on Assad’s regime, and tightening up sanctions, said Martin Kettle on The Guardian, whilst Cameron’s saying that the Assad family should be hauled to the international criminal court. “It all sounds like action, and it is all useful incremental stuff.” But it’s “action at a distance, with strict limits.” The “international order” has an interest in “inaction”, as the costs are “deemed too high.” Faced with a choice of intervention or not, the global economy points to not. But though the age of the neocon is over, that of Assad still goes on – “posing questions that will one day have to be answered.”
One hawk remains. Not everyone’s quite so wary: the Republican Senator John McCain, in USA Today, called for immediate action with foreign air power and a concerted effort from the European Union, the Arab League and NATO. He cited the USA’s clear strategic necessity in doing so – Syria is “Iran’s main ally”, and a “state sponsor of terrorism.” He referred to Bosnia and Kosovo, and President Clinton’s actions there in intervention. “We must act now to stop the slaughter.”
Don’t forget the victims. Meanwhile, Syrians tell of their abuses at the hands of soldiers. The Independent described how one student was attacked with metal pincers; another described the “flying carpet” method of torture. The list makes gruesome reading: “Being stabbed or cut; various kinds of electric shocks (including in electric chairs); male rape; excruciating stress positions; cigarettes being stubbed out on the body; being forced to watch family members tortured.” We need to extend the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and prosecute those responsible for such “sickening” crimes. “It’s not yet clear what is going to change this lethal situation but no one who reads our report can be in any doubt that the Assad regime has indulged in an orgy of torture and terror.”