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Dictator of Damascus


Words, words, words. Bashar al-Assad knows his Hamlet, and he is not impressed.

Yes, his isolation grows daily. A day after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia pulled his ambassador out of Damascus, the Kuwaitis and Bahrainis – we shall naturally ignore, here, Bahrain's own bloody internal suppression – have dutifully followed his example.

The Arab League believes that Bashar should "immediately stop" the violence. The UN has roared, though it managed to smear Syria's protesters by calling for both sides "to exercise restraint" – as if the demonstrators had tanks – and Mr Medvedev, the Russian President, has talked grimly of Bashar's "fate". Even Turkey, according to the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has "run out of patience". A Turkish "safe haven" in the north of Syria, anyone?

The trouble is that everyone has been running out of patience with Syria since the spring, and no one has done more than turn up the rhetoric as the statistics of innocent dead ticked up from 500 to 1,000, to more than 2,000. And of course the absence of journalists inside Syria means that the full story is not known. Syrian television has shown gunmen among demonstrators in Hama, while nightly I watch Syrian state television recording the funerals of dozens – now perhaps 300 – soldiers. Who killed them? Who are the gunmen? YouTube is a dodgy witness to history but there can be little doubt that, faced with state violence on such a scale, civilians have armed themselves to protect their families, to take revenge on the regime, to keep the Syrian militias out of their cities.

And the Assad family, cynical as it is, enacting legislative reform while killing those who might benefit from the new laws, fully understands the hypocrisy of the Arab and European reaction to the Syrian bloodbath. Had Messrs Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama stopped short after they saved Benghazi – had they reined in their juvenile enthusiasm for destroying Gaddafi – they may have had the spittle (I use Sir Thomas More's word for courage) and the munitions to destroy some of Assad's 8,000 tanks. That massive fleet of armour, one should add, was paid for by the Syrian people in order to be protect Syria from Israel – not to protect the regime from the Syrians themselves.

William Hague – he who once childishly believed Gaddafi was en route to Venezuela – has been waffling on about how little the West can do to stop Assad. This is rubbish. Britain's RAF bases in Cyprus are infinitely closer to Syria than to Libya. Had we prevented the bloodbath in Benghazi and left the Libyans to their civil war, we might have found a public opinion strong enough to stomach an assault on the Assad legions. But no, Libya has oil, Syria has little and – despite all the roaring from the Arabs – most of the dictators, in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain, in the rest of the Middle East, would still prefer a "reformed" Assad to freedom, dignity and liberty for his people. The Israelis don't want regime change in Damascus. Do the Americans?

You only have to compare Obama's reaction to the massacre in Norway and to the infinitely larger blood-shedding in Syria. Obama described how the Norwegian killings "broke his heart". Yet the slaughter of far more innocents in Syria merely elicits the idea that the United States can live without Assad if he goes. There are plenty of Breiviks among the Syrian Shabiha murderers in Syria – but no Western leaders to mourn their handiwork. Bashar Assad knows this. And don't be fooled by the tears pouring forth from the Keeper of the Three Holy Places.

Any sane Arab, Muslim – "or anyone who knows that this has nothing to do with religion, ethics or morals", in the words of King Abdullah – knows that spilling innocent blood leads to hopelessness. We might be more impressed were it not for the fact the Saudis and their tame imams remained resolutely silent when a million and a half Muslims were slaughtered on the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war battlefields. Back then, of course, the Saudis – and the West – were on the side of that nice Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein against the horrible Shia theocrat Khomeini. Now the Sunnis of Syria are fighting the Shia – for which read Alawite – dictator of Damascus. Having convinced themselves that his survival would only embolden Shia Iran, however, the monarch of Riyadh has come down on the side of the Syrian people – for now, at least.

Assad is almost certainly doomed. But he's more like Macbeth, "in blood stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go'er".

  

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