What proportion of the Syrian population is fully in support of the continued uprising against the country’s authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad? It is not a question I have heard addressed often — not by our journalists bravely reporting from beneath the Syrian army’s mortar attacks, nor indeed by those sitting at home writing for outraged liberal broadsheets, demanding we arm the rebels, or at least do something. Still less have I heard the issue addressed by the European Union and its odd new allies in this struggle — al-Qa’eda, Hamas and the notoriously democratic government of Saudi Arabia.
It is a complex question. News reports tend to focus on where the action is, where the atrocities are, where the good footage is, where there are outrageous stories to tell of violence and oppression, of blood and bandages and heroic doctors staunching raw cavernous wounds with curtain material. And so all we have seen on our screens these last few weeks have been appalling scenes of children dying and our own journalists being killed or maimed — and, naturally enough, our anger at the ghastly Assad is stoked up. He is plainly not, as was suggested at the time of his accession, a new voice of liberal decency and exquisite moderation in the Middle East, but apparently more of the same ol’ — a ruthless and bloody authoritarian.
We have seen, in short, what is going on in the city of Homs, once Emesa, an agreeable Roman city state. We have heard less from Syria’s two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus respectively. That is because there is no fighting whatsoever there, in these municipalities consisting of more than five million people, save for the occasional murderous al-Qa’eda (probably) suicide bomber or car bomb or, on one occasion, a mortar attack from the Free Syrian Army which left a score of civilians dead. These two cities are at peace, comparatively. There was an anti-Assad demo in Aleppo at the start of the uprising which attracted a few hundred supporters and the predictably brutal reaction from Assad’s thugs. And that was followed by a demo (I daresay choreographed) of more than a million in support of Assad. On the one hand, the Free Syrian Army has claimed that ‘50 per cent’ of the territory of Syria is no longer under government control. However, this 50 per cent does not seem to include any towns apart from Homs — just vast swaths of that reddish scrubland they have out there. On the other hand, the Syrian government’s referendum on a new constitution claimed a turnout of 57 per cent and a vote in favour of the constitution of almost 90 per cent. Is this a mere delusion or cynicism on the part of Assad? Probably.
But I still do not see much evidence of burgeoning fury and rebellion among ordinary Syrians; as Hillary Clinton put it: ‘You don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya.’ Quite. But still, this does not stop Hillary from excoriating the Russians and the Chinese for refusing to clamber aboard the liberal democracy/Islamic fundamentalist bandwagon and demand regime change in Damascus and more and more punitive measures.
At the very least — the very least — you can say with some certainty that the popular opposition to Assad is far less widespread in Syria than was the opposition to the government in Bahrain, for example. However, as was made clear at the time, the protestors in Bahrain were — unlike their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya — all scary jihadi nutjobs, rather than the Jeffersonian Democrats who have led the rebellions in other Arab countries. I suppose it must have helped, in our arriving at that conclusion, that the Bahraini government was a good ally of ours, whereas we were perfectly happy to do without Mubarak and Gaddafi.
The opposition in Syria is of course fractured, its constituent parts apparently loathing one another just as much as they loathe Assad. There are one or two liberal democrats, and then huge numbers of the Brothers, the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘Send the Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to coffins’ was a chant that was to be heard quite regularly at the early anti-Assad protests.
I don’t think that either minority — the Christians or the Shia Muslim Alawites — are wholly behind the uprising. I think they would prefer things to stay pretty much as they are. So too the Syrian middle class, the homosexuals and probably the women. They will have watched what has happened in Tunisia and Libya — and Iraq for that matter. Rather a pragmatic dictator than some bearded cleric with Allah and a sense of destiny in his eyes.
This time, mercifully, there is no great appetite for sending in the troops: at last, we are suffering from intervention fatigue. It is a great shame that this malaise did not set in some nine years ago, but there we are. Instead, we offer the coward’s way out — to arm the rebels. This is the course of action being urged upon us by, among others, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This will certainly prolong the bloodshed — much as, I suspect, our involvement so far has prolonged the bloodshed. If we had any spine, we would simply condemn Assad’s brutal attacks upon Homs and likewise condemn the vicious attacks upon civilians in Damascus and Aleppo from the Free Syrian Army, and simply urge both sides to reach some sort of agreement, ineffectually. However horrific the assault upon Homs, it does not mean that truth and justice reside solely with the rebels and that we should back them.