Monday 18 December 2017

Assad may have tortured and killed, but now he's a friend

A man carries children rescued from an area which activists said were hit by airstrikes from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus
A man carries children rescued from an area which activists said were hit by airstrikes from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad

Colin Freeman

First, President Assad was the enemy. Then, as the Syrian rebels gave way to the radicals of Isil, he became the enemy's enemy too. Now, it seems President Assad is also a friend - at least when it comes to bombing raids.

That was the message from his BBC interview in which he disclosed that Damascus was being kept informed about the US-led airstrikes against Isil positions in Syria. No, there wasn't actually a red telephone in his office in Damascus with a hotline to the Pentagon - that would be a little too cosy for both sides. But there was communication through Iraq and other countries as to when such raids were taking place.

"Through third parties, more than one party, Iraq and other countries, sometimes they convey message(s)," he told the BBC's Jeremy Bowen in an interview in Damascus. "But there is nothing tactical."

Nothing tactical? Like most of what Mr Assad says in interviews, that may be technically correct but is otherwise stretching it.

True, it may be that Damascus and Washington do not co-ordinate their strafing runs of rebel and Isil-held positions each day. But as Mr Bowen pointed out, it would appear to account for the remarkable lack of mid-air collisions between US and Syrian war planes as they fly in shared airspace.

It will also give Isil all the "proof" they need that the godless regime of President Assad has allied in totality with the even more godless Americans.

Not that they need convincing, if yesterday's latest propaganda video from the kidnapped British journalist John Cantlie was anything to go by.

Mr Cantlie was embarked on a travelogue around Isil-held parts of Aleppo, showing his usual gunpoint-enforced enthusiasm for the peace and prosperity that his captors have brought to the area.

He then broke off from his Whickeresque musings about the charms of Aleppo's souks and teahouses to point out that just minutes after a US drone was seen over the skyline, an Assad jet dropped a series of bombs. "What is going on?" he asked. "Someone is working with someone around here to drop bombs."

How concerned, or appalled - or relieved - should we be about this new spirit of co-operation?

It's not as if it's the first time that the US has discreetly allied with unsavoury foes in its bid to counter radical Islam. America, after all, armed Saddam Hussein during his eight-year conflict with Iran shortly after its own Islamic revolution, which, with hindsight, was arguably an earlier War on Terror.

But back then, Saddam was just another Arab strongman, not someone whom Washington had helped to demonise around the world. Two years ago, it should not be forgotten, President Assad was considered a complete pariah internationally, a man for whom life in a cell at The Hague was considered a merciful option.

He had terrorised, tortured and massacred those who rose up against him in the Arab Spring.

He had used chemical weapons on his own people. He had drunk the blood of children - or, if not quite that, spilt it in industrial quantities through indiscriminate shelling of rebel-held areas with "barrel bombs" packed with shrapnel.

Yet survive he has, and that very act of holding his nerve has helped transform him in the eyes of his supporters. He is no longer weak little Bashar, the Western-educated, English-speaking wimp who only inherited the job from his strongman dad, President Hafez, because his brother, the rightful heir, died in a car crash. He has shown himself to have stomach for the fight.

And while the West may not see it this way, among many of his more fanatical supporters in Syria's Alawite minority, he is regarded, rightly or wrongly, in much the same way as Churchill would have been, as a righteous warlord who has prevailed against the odds.

Hence, it would seem, his decision to invite Mr Bowen for interview. Heads of state, after all, seldom court the international press when they are feeling on the back foot.

Despite a fairly rigorous grilling from Mr Bowen, he sounded relaxed and confident, even if there were touches of chilling callousness - such as his response when Mr Bowen asked him about barrel bombs.

Bad taste

"I haven't heard of the army using barrels, or maybe, cooking pots," he joked. Maybe he hasn't.

Given the gravity of the accusation, though, the correct response would not have been to make a lame gag.

Still, even if his occasional attempts at humour were sickly off-colour, it is not hard to imagine why Washington has dropped its vocal demands that President Assad steps down forthwith, and may now be quietly colluding with him in bombing raids.

For listening to him on the radio, Mr Assad at least comes across as the kind of person they might one day do business with, who speaks not just fluent English, but the language of normal statesmen everywhere, and who won't be inciting squads of hitmen to wreak havoc on the streets of London or Paris.

The same cannot be said of Isil, with whom there will never be any kind of compromise or deals, only constant war.As far as the West is concerned, containing them is now the overwhelming priority.

Dealing with Mr Assad - and seeking justice for the Arab Spring that he strangled at birth - will just have to wait. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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