February 7, 2012
President Bashar al-Assad is not about to go. Not yet. Not, maybe, for quite a long time. Newspapers in the Middle East are filled with stories about whether or not this is Assad’s “Benghazi moment” – these reports are almost invariably written from Washington or London or Paris – but few in the region understand how we Westerners can get it so wrong. The old saw has to be repeated and repeated: Egypt was not Tunisia; Bahrain was not Egypt; Yemen was not Bahrain; Libya was not Yemen. And Syria is very definitely not Libya.
It’s not difficult to see how the opposite plays in the West. The barrage of horrifying Facebook images from Homs, and statements from the “Free Syrian Army”, and the huffing of La Clinton and the amazement that Russia can be so blind to the suffering of Syrians – as if America was anything but blind to the suffering of Palestinians when, say, more than 1,300 were killed in Israel’s onslaught on Gaza – doesn’t gel with reality on the ground. Why should the Russians care about Homs? Did they care about the dead of Chechnya?
Look at it the other way round. Yes, we all know that Syria’s intelligence service has committed human rights abuses. They did that in Lebanon. Yes, we all know this is a regime in Damascus, not an elected government. Yes, we all know about corruption. Yes, we watched the UN’s humiliation at the weekend – although why La Clinton should expect the Russians to click their heels after the “no-fly zone” in Libya turned into “regime change” is a bit of a mystery.
The destruction of the Alawite-led government in Syria – which means in effect, a Shia regime – will be a sword in the soul of Shia Iran. And look at the Middle East now from the windows of the massive presidential palace that overlooks the old city of Damascus. True, the Gulf has turned against Syria. True, Turkey has turned against Syria (while generously offering Bashar exile in the old Ottoman empire).