Bashar Assad

Bashar Assad is the monster of the moment. Dropping poison gas onto civilians has crossed the last taboo in warfare. But there is one thing that none of the handwringers want to confront - which was pointed out by Lord Hylton (for which he was castigated) - is that most Syrians would rather have him in control than the alternatives. Is that surprising when the those alternatives involve murderous sectarian chaos - or even worse, the 'order' provided by ISIS? What is often forgotten is that Syria is an artificial state where the only politics are going to be either authoritarian or sectarian. Assad pere was a Baathist strongman who united the minorities, Alawites (his own tribe), Christians, Shia Muslims, Yazadis and Druze, amongst others, against the largest religious group, the Sunni Muslims. By and large, with not too pretty methods, he kept the peace for nearly fifty years. It was certainly no liberal democracy but - and this is the point that Lord Hylton was making - it was preferable to the chaotic hell that Syria has been since 2011.

The story of Bashar Assad is terrible - and fascinating. He was the younger brother, an eye doctor living in London with his English wife, a family man who had left 'the family business.' Then his brother, the chosen successor, died - and he was summoned back. Familiar story? It is the story of Michael Corleone from The Godfather. His father was a ruthless dictator - but it doesn't seem as if that role would have been natural to Bashir in any normal circumstances: he was not one of Sadam Hussain's sadistic sons. Changed circumstances - the Arab Spring - unleashed an existential civil war that he and his allies had to win. The alternative would have been, at best, persecution and impoverishment under a vengeful Sunni regime and, at worst, murder and exile at the same hands. When wars become existential people will do anything to win - because they have to. We should know: in living memory, civilised democracies deliberately burnt entire cities to the ground, immolating not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands, of children in their homes. Almost nobody turned a hair at the time. 

This is in no way an apologia for Assad. He has, like Michael Corleone, become a man who will stop at nothing and has, like Macbeth, become 'in blood stepped in so far.' But when the stakes are so high - life and home - is it surprising that he behaves as he does? His is such a terrible and tragic, in the Shakespearean sense, story because it begs the question of what we would do, or be, if we were in his shoes.


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