Assad and Syria
Bashar al-Assad has been President of Syria since his father Hafez al-Assad died in 2000. He is the head of state, but is also Chairman of the Syrian Al-Baath Party and of its Central Committee. It seems naïf to suppose that he alone is responsible for every decision made by the effective government of the country. Even more naïf to suppose that the people of Syria will benefit from his removal. However, the pressure for his removal seems to be building. It is the misfortune of repressive governments that their only exit strategy is death.
Since the Ottomans evacuated Syria in September 1918 at the end of the first world war, Syria has experienced almost continual violence and political turmoil till 1970 when Hafez al-Assad and Mustafa Tlass staged a bloodless coup inside the ruling Syrian Al-Baath Party . Since then the country has become one of the most stable in the Arab world, no doubt by operating a more effectively repressive regime than before, but also by gaining the support of religious minorities with secular and modernizing reforms, and by fostering if not actually bringing about a considerable improvement in living standards.
When Bashar al-Assad, the ophthalmologist second son of Hafez, became heir apparent in 1994, on the death of his older brother Bassel, he had only 6 years in which to establish himself in the Baath Party machine and in the country as the obvious and only successor to his father. However, he was adopted unopposed, and has survived for 12 years. While offering tiny glimpses of reform and liberation he has in fact retained all the tools of repression used by his father's regime, and (of course) retained most of the advisors and policies.
There seems little prospect that the present government of Syria will be able to institute any democratic reforms or even tolerate free discussion of alternative policies. But that does not seem to me to justify the lack of any serious or remotely sophisticated diplomatic effort by the West to encourage reform. The opposite seems to have been the case. There seems to have been an assumption that some sort of 'Arab-Spring' revolution is needed, and revolutionary elements have been encouraged and armed.
It seems obvious that any diplomatic dialogue with the Syrian government should have started by seeing the situation from the Syrian government's point of view; accepting that it is the duty of every government to maintain order. And starting from there. Though 90% of the chatter in our British media is the childish, gung-ho excitement one might see at an illicit badger-baiting, occasionally we hear a more mature voice of understanding and restraint [1-4]. The prospect for peace and reason seems very meager. But our knowledge of the methods of Conflict Resolution teach us that each party to the dispute must see the pain of the other party.
The other message from history is about PATIENCE rather than PRIGGISHNESS. We in England also had a decade of civil war (admittedly 370 years ago); in England also government troops fired on peaceful demonstrators (admittedly 193 years ago). Thank goodness no external power had the impudence to interfere significantly on either occasion. Let us hope that Syria also can be left to sort out its own future.