7 Jan 2013

Assad’s warning – don’t let Syria become another Somalia

As ever in Syria, it depends where you are and who you are, in order to gauge reaction to President Assad’s weekend speech.

For example, it caused a campus demo at Aleppo University – but no such reports are coming from the three campuses of Damascus University.

Mind you, if all you have to go on are western media reports, you are probably amazed that the universities are even open.

They are. Just as the daily morning flight on Syrian Air leaves Damascus international for Aleppo every day. You won’t see it on IATA computer schedules around the world – but you’ll see it at the airport.

So Syrians are well used to reports of the imminent collapse of their state.

In Damascus, Homs, Hama and even parts of Aleppo, you could be forgiven for thinking the war isn’t happening.

No tourists in old Damascus or visiting Hama’s incredible waterwheels and aqueducts – but there’s no real sign of war either in these places beyond the odd power cut. There always were obvious secret police and soldiers on these streets.

Damascenes will often say they’re incredulous at the west. As one general put it to me:

“You British go and fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and you say we should not fight them in our own capital?”

Almost everyine in Syria has seen the video apparently showing rebels asking a young boy to try and decapitate a Syrian officer POW.

The prominence of al-Nusra and other Islamic groups in the fighting is obvious. The use of Taliban-style child-decapitations¬† on YouTube is also noted by many Syrian who know it’s an Afghan/Taliban import.

Of course, these elements don’t tell the whole story of popular revolution. But they do allow President Assad some purchase at home when he blames foreign “terrorists” for the war.

It’s not wholly and not even mostly true. But it’s true to a degree that matters, domestically. For the regime, it is just about true enough in time of crisis.

So too the Russians’ favourite phrase for Syria is also an enormous comfort to many here who are no lovers of the House of Assad: Somalia-isation.

Ugly, isn’t it?

But for many Syrians it’s a very real fear: that if Assad goes, the country ends up being partitioned along sectarian lines as the rebels attack themselves.

They already are – fighting over the looting opportunities with each other in Aleppo. Rebel groups have routinely turned their guns on eachother. Ask the NBC crew recently rescued from such a firefight and liberated from their kidnap ordeal.

Their political leadership remains in dissaray about what it wants and how to get there, and Syrians of all shades know this.

So you will find many who detest Assad, the police state, the Stasi approach to dissent for generations – the Syrian way. But they will also say they despair of what could come next.

So when President Bashar al-Assad spoke at the weekend he did two things above all else: raised the fear of foreign meddling and the spectre of a Syrian Somalia.

Both will play well in Sunni, Alawite and Christian communities.

Syrians find it rude even to mention someone’s religious ethnicity – they will whisper it. There remains deep pride in the checks and balances that have held the state together – not least in the army.

Two years of war and not a single unit if the vast army has yet defected en masse. The arms supply to rebels is dwindling as they readily admit.

The president’s friends in Moscow, Beijing and Teheran are far from disowning their man in Damascus.

So for many in the Syrian capital, his words over the weekend were not “beyond hypocritical”, as William Hague described them.

They don’t register the video of Assad’s officers apparently stabbing and stoning prisoners to death. They see al-Qaeda and al-Nusra and that little boy cutting at the neck of the POW.

They fear for their future and they may well be deluded in clinging to the regime content to slaughter its own Syrians – but they will tell you there is no choice.

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