In my 1912 Baedeker guide to Syria, a page and a half is devoted to the city of Homs. In tiny print, it says that, "in the plain to the south-east, you come across the village of Baba Amr. A visit to the arcaded bazaar is worthwhile – here you will find beautiful silks. To the north of Homs, on a square, there is an artillery barracks…" The bazaar has long since been demolished, though the barracks inevitably passed from Ottoman into French and ultimately into Baathist hands; for 27 days last month, this bastion has been visiting hell on what was once the village of Baba Amr.
Once a Roman city, where the crusaders committed their first act of cannibalism – eating their dead Muslim opponents – Homs was captured by Saladin in 1174. Under post-First World War French rule, the settlement became a centre of insurrection and, after independence, the very kernel of Baathist resistance to the first Syrian governments. By early 1964, there were battles in Homs between Sunnis and Alawi Shia. A year later, the young Baathist army commander of Homs, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Tlas, was arresting his pro-regime comrades. Is the city's history becoming a little clearer now?
As one of the Sunni nouveaux riches who would support the Alawi regime, Tlas became defence minister in Hafez al-Assad's Baathist government. Under their post-1919 mandate, the French had created a unit of "Special Forces" in which the Alawis were given privileged positions; one of their strongholds was the military academy in Homs. One of the academy's most illustrious students under Hafez al-Assad's rule – graduating in 1994 – was his son Bashar. Bashar's uncle, Adnan Makhlouf, graduated second to him; Makhlouf is today regarded as the corrupting element in the Assad regime.
Later, Bashar would become a doctor at the military Tishreen Hospital in Damascus (where today most of the Syrian army's thousands of victims are taken for post-mortem examination before their funerals). Bashar did not forget Homs; his British-born Sunni wife came from a Homs family. One of his closest advisers, Bouthaina Shabaan, comes from Homs; even last year the city was too dangerous for her to visit her mother's grave on the anniversary of her death. Homs lies deep in the heart of all Syrians, Sunni and Alawite alike. Is it surprising that it should have been the Golgotha of the uprising? Or that the Syrian authorities should have determined that its recapture would break the back of the revolution? To the north, 30 years ago, Hafez Assad created more than 10,000 "martyrs" in Hama; last week, Homs became a little Hama, the city's martyrdom predicted by its past.
So why were we so surprised when the "Free Syrian Army" fled the city? Did we really expect the Assad regime to close up shop and run because a few hundred men with Kalashnikovs wanted to stage a miniature Warsaw uprising in Homs? Did we really believe that the deaths of women and children – and journalists – would prevent those who still claim the mantle of Arab nationalism from crushing the city? When the West happily adopted the illusions of Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton – and the Arab Gulf states whose demands for Syrian "democracy" are matched by their refusal to give this same democracy to their own people – the Syrians understood the hypocrisy.
Were the Saudis, now so keen to arm Syria's Sunni insurgents – along with Sunni Qatar – planning to surrender their feudal, princely Sunni power to their own citizens and to their Shia minority? Was the Emir of Qatar contemplating resignation? Among the lobbyists of Washington, among the illusionists at the Brookings Institution and the Rand Corporation and the Council on Foreign Relations and all the other US outfits that peddle New York Times editorials, Homs had become the new Benghazi, the start-line for the advance on Damascus.
It was the same old American dream: if a police state was ruthless, cynical and corrupt – and let us have no illusions about the Baathist apparatus and its panjandrum – then its opponents, however poorly armed, would win; because they were the good guys. The old clichés clanked into focus. The Baathists were Nazis; Bashar a mere cipher in the hands of his family; his wife, Asma, variously an Eva Braun, Marie Antoinette or Lady Macbeth. Upon this nonsense, the West and the Arabs built their hopes.
The more Sarkozy, Cameron and Clinton raged against Syria's atrocities, the more forceful they were in refusing all military help to the rebels. There were conditions to be met. The Syrian opposition had to unite before they could expect help. They had to speak with one voice – as if Gaddafi's opponents did anything like this before Nato decided to bomb him out of power. Sarkozy's hypocrisy was all too obvious to the Syrians. So anxious was he to boost his chances in the French presidential election that he deployed hundreds of diplomats and "experts" to "rescue" the French freelance journalist Edith Bouvier, hampering all the efforts of NGOs to bring her to safety. Not many months ago, this wretched man was cynically denouncing two male French journalists – foolhardy, he called them – who had spent months in Taliban custody in Afghanistan.
French elections, Russian elections, Iranian elections, Syrian referendums – and, of course, US elections: it's amazing how much "democracy" can derail sane policies in the Middle East. Putin supports an Arab leader (Assad) who announces that he has done his best "to protect my people, so I don't feel I have anything to be blamed for… you don't feel you're to blame when you don't kill your own people". I suppose that would be Putin's excuse after his army butchered the Chechens. As it happens, I don't remember Britain's PM saying this about Irish Catholics on Bloody Sunday in 1972 – but perhaps Northern Ireland's Catholics didn't count as Britain's "people"?
No, I'm not comparing like with like. Grozny, with which the wounded photographer Paul Conroy drew a memorable parallel on Friday, has more in common with Baba Amr than Derry. But there is a distressing habit of denouncing anyone who tries to talk reality. Those who claimed that the IRA would eventually find their way into politics and government in Northern Ireland – I was one – were routinely denounced as being "in cahoots with terrorists". When I said in a talk in Istanbul just before Christmas that the Assad regime would not collapse with the speed of other Arab dictatorships – that Christian and Alawite civilians were also being murdered – a young Syrian began shrieking at me, demanding to know "how much you are being paid by Assad's secret police"? Untrue, but understandable. The young man came from Deraa and had been tortured by Syria's mukhabarat.
The truth is that the Syrians occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years and, long after they left in 2005, we were still finding their political claws deep inside the red soil of Beirut. Their intelligence services were still in full operation, their power to kill undiminished, their Lebanese allies in the Beirut parliament. And if the Baathists could smother Lebanon in so powerful a sisterly embrace for so long, what makes anyone think they will relinquish Syria itself easily? As long as Assad can keep Damascus and Aleppo, he can survive.
After all, the sadistic ex-secret police boss Najibullah clung on as leader of Afghanistan for years when all he could do was fly between Kabul and Kandahar. It might be said that, with all Obama's horses and all Obama's men on his side, this is pretty much all Hamid Karzai – with his cruel secret police, his regime's corruption, his bogus elections – can do today. But that is not a comparison to commend itself to Washington, Paris, London, Doha or Riyadh, or even Istanbul.
So what of Bashar Assad? There are those who believe that he really still wants to go down in history as the man who gave Syria its freedom. Preposterous, of course. The problem is that even if this is true, there are those for whom any profound political change becomes a threat to their power and to their lives. The security police generals and the Baathist paramilitaries will fight to the death for Assad, loyal to a man, because – even if they don't admire him – they know that his overthrow means their own deaths. But if Assad were to indicate that he intended to "overthrow" himself – if the referendum and the new constitution and all the "democratic" changes he talks about became real – these notorious men would feel both fear and fury. Why, in this case, should they any longer remain loyal?
No, Bashar Assad is not a cipher. He is taking the decisions. But his father, Hafez, came to power in 1970 in a "corrective" revolution; "corrections" can always be made again. In the name of Baathism. In the name of Arab nationalism. In the name of crushing the al-Qa'ida-Zionist-Islamist-terrorist enemy. In the name of history.