Robert Fulford: Syrian ‘reformer’ Bashar al-Assad sends in the tanks


By the end of January, Bashar al-Assad had been president of Syria for about 10 years, plenty of time to learn all the answers. Smugly, he predicted to The Wall Street Journal that

Like father, like son: Bashar al-Assad launches a brutal crackdown on his people, just like his father did

Syria would certainly remain stable, no matter what happened to other Arab countries.

Syria would be saved from revolution because he was giving the people what they wanted — an anti-American, anti-Israel government. “You have to be closely linked to the beliefs of the people,” he explained.

Otherwise, “you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.” So he maintained close connections with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Still, he felt Syria also needed internal changes. Political reform hadn’t progressed as quickly as he’d hoped since he took office. (Actually, it hadn’t progressed at all.) He said he was planning municipal elections, freedom for non-governmental organizations and a new media law.

This week, however, he’s planning nothing of the kind. Survival is his only plan. Chaos now looks like a possibility. The report this week that his wife has run home to Britain with their three children was the latest ominous development.

There have been demonstrations in at least five cities, the first of them apparently touched off in Daraa when security guards killed four young people for drawing anti-regime graffiti. Crowds filled the streets, torching Baath Party headquarters and a branch office of Syriatel, the phone company owned by Assad’s billionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf. They defaced Assad posters and knocked down a statue of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

Since then, the repression has been more vicious than in any of the other Arab rebellions, aside from Libya. It sounds like the work of Bashar’s unmourned father. A dictator for three decades, he put down a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 by obliterating the city of Hama, killing 25,000 to 30,000 people.

Bashar came to power “on the promise of reform,” as Eugene Rogan puts it in his book,The Arabs: A History. It always seemed odd to expect reform from an opthalmologist who never planned a career in politics and became president only because the intended heir, his brother Basil, died in a car accident in 1994. Nevertheless, after Bashar was called back from medical studies in London, spent a few years in military training and then became president, he advertised himself as a reformer. This worked for some years, at least among innocent and hopeful Westerners. Hillary Clinton, speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation on March 27, said: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” When asked about one of the father’s atrocities, she said, “There is a different leader in Syria now.”

That notion, while probably pure fiction, stayed alive long enough to colour a now infamous article in the March, 2011 issue of Vogue. A profile by Joan Juliet Buck, “Asma al-Assad: A Rose of the Desert” portrayed the First Lady and her husband as a fun couple. Asma, a 35-year-old British-educated banker, the daughter of a retired diplomat and a cardiologist, turned out to be “glamorous, young, and very chic,” a long-limbed beauty with an analytic mind.

The article said she and the president ran their household on democratic principles, with one vote for each parent and each of the children (ages nine, seven and six). The children were all attending Montessori schools. They had a Christmas tree, symbolizing their openness to different cultures.

Asma’s main interest? “Empowering young people, encouraging them to be creative and take responsibility.” She’s inspired headlines like “Sexy Brit bringing Syria in from the cold” in the London Sun.

In a classic editor’s nightmare, Buck’s article appeared just in time to be read in conjunction with the first news of rebellion and repression from Syria. When Max Fisher of the Atlantic suggested it might not be in the best of taste, the editors  Read more

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