Bashar al-Assad’s Journey

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Bashar al-Assad meets with Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, 25 February 2019 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As we stand on the cusp of the Syrians and Turks continuing diplomacy by other means it may be an opportune time to have a quick look at Bashar al-Assad. The son of the former autocratic ruler of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar was studying then working as an ophthalmologist in England until 1994 before being plucked out of obscurity to eventually become President of Syria in 2000.

Before getting stuck into the son we need to take a quick look at the legacy of the father. His biggest obsession was getting the Golan Heights back from the Israelis. During the first Gulf War the Syrians were in the coalition against Iraq. It is not known what the Syrians were promised but it is obvious they expected the return of the Golan as payback for backing the coalition. Indeed there were discussions between the Israelis and the Syrians about the Golan. The Syrians wanted ever inch back and the Israelis wanted to keep a strip of land so, as they put it, the Syrians would not be able to dangle their feet in the Sea of Galilee. At this Hafez stormed out of the meeting and talks broke down.

This was the background to Bashar taking over from his father. Of course they had to go through the niceties and have an election but take over is what Bashar did. Even before his sons Hafez had favoured his brother Rifaat succeeding him but Rifaat attempted a coup in 1983 and was exiled. The next in line was the eldest son Bassel but he died in a car accident in 1994 and so Bashar was left as the one to inherit the throne. His younger brother Maher is the General in charge of the Republican Guard.

By the time he reached the top, Bashar had been in charge of the Syrian Army in Lebanon and had seen what comes from trusting the Americans. As the Kurds are finding out right now you get nothing out of it. With this kind of introduction to the world of politics it is little wonder that he wouldn’t trust the Israelis or the Americans and presumably by extension, us and probably the French as well. Having seen what Hizbollah could do in Lebanon, Bashar got in with the Iranians and they have a fairly close relationship.

In religious terms, the Al-Assad family is muslim but part of the Alawite fraternity, the Alawites make up about 17% of the Syrian population. They are neither Sunni nor Shia and are often derided as not really muslim at all by both of the main sects in Islam. In spite of this Bashar has been protective of all his people, Christians included. The Kurds have been a bit troublesome but they are seeking their own homeland. Very few middle east states protect their Christian minorities.

Ever since the ridiculously named Arab Spring, someone has been out for regime change in most of the Arab countries. Syria was no exception if slightly lower down the list and CallMeDave was signed up to do his master’s bidding in 2013. The fly in the ointment was Edstone Milliband. In the only truly wonderful act he has ever performed in his otherwise meaningless existence, he shafted the coalition by not approving military action having previously told the Government he would support it. Surely we can all recall the surprise and vindictiveness on Cameron’s face when his plans were thwarted. Oddly, Cleggover gets little or no mention in this escapade but he and his LibDums must have been signed up to waste billions more of our money and even more importantly, blood, in the shithole named Syria. Somewhat belatedly and with real feeling I say, thank you Mr Ed Miliband for keeping us out of that quagmire.

The foremost question in my mind is what has Bashar been up to for the last 19 years to so upset the Camerons, Obamas and even higher beings of this world that they wanted him removed. Firstly he got in bed with the Iranians to a much larger degree than his father did; the Israelis and Americans do not like the Iranians. Then he tried to build nuclear weapons until Israel bombed his facility. He also wasn’t whoever the people behind the scenes decided they wanted as President. Bashar was seen as weak before he returned to Syria in 1994. He has survived 9 years of civil war so he can’t be as weak as he was perceived. This is not going to be an article in support of Bashar but we need to bear in mind that he is the duly elected President of Syria and he walks the usual tightrope while also weighed down by Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

Before Bashar took over, Syria had been cooperating with the Iranians in Lebanon since 1982. When he did take over in 2000, the country was rather short of the necessary, their Russian allies were in the middle of  their own upheavals, the army needed modern weapons and the Golan still had the Israelis occupying it. Bashar could either align with the Americans or the Iranians. Syria had already, as they saw it, been let down by the Americans after the first Gulf War so the Iranians were the natural choice. Shortly before Hafez died, Bill Clinton had engineered a meeting between the Syrians and Israelis. Israel had offered to withdraw from almost all of the Golan but not quite all, they would keep a presence around the Sea of Galilee. Hafez stormed out, robbed of what he considered to be his reward for being on the side of the Allies during the war.

Against this background Bashar decided to let Iran’s proxies fight Syria’s battles for him. He signed agreements with Iran and got $1.5 billion from them to rebuild his army. The Americans still held hope that Syria could be encouraged round to their point of view though the basis for this belief escapes me entirely. In 2002 Bashar allowed the Iranians to not only supply the Hizbollah people in Lebanon through Syria, he also supplied them from Syrian Army armouries; some of these weapons from Russia were not in Iran’s inventory. Eventually Iran, Syria and Hizbollah operated as one. General Suleiman of the Syrian Army was Bashar’s man on the inside.

In 2007 the Israelis targeted the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, Ibrahim Othman. While he was in Vienna he was waylaid in the hotel bar by an Israeli agent while a team searched his room. In a heavy locked case they found documents and photographed them. Two weeks later they started looking at them and saw the pictures of Syria’s reactor. Their first indication Syria was trying to make a bomb and construction had already begun. Security for the project was tight and all important communications were made only on paper via motorcycle couriers. Bashar had correctly surmised that Israel intercepted all electronic communications.

Syria had purchased the technology from North Korea with Iranian funding. The reactor would enable Bashar to build a bomb and he would then be on a par with Israel. Even the Americans hadn’t discovered Syria’s nuclear project. The Israelis shared this intelligence with the shocked Americans although Dick Cheney had been saying this for some time (to be fair he probably thought Greenland and Fiji were doing the same). Israel’s own nuclear experts were of the opinion that the facility would be up and running in six months. This left little time for action, there was no intention of bombing an active reactor, the fallout would not only have been political and military.

The Americans were not prepared to bomb the reactor, using B-2s it would have been simple but the after effects would have been disastrous. There were conflicting views in Israel as to the anticipated Syrian reaction to a bombing. Some thought Bashar would almost be obliged to declare war, others thought he could be contained. The contain side won the day. On September 6th 2007 scores of Israeli fighters took off and headed out over the Mediterranean. This was normal so the Syrians would not be alarmed. Somewhere in the distance 7 F-15s headed north. They flew low over Turkey and then over Syria. At a range of thirty miles they launched 22 missiles at the three sites within the nuclear complex. Satellites confirmed complete destruction. The Americans and Israelis said nothing for seven months. Bashar was convinced to say nothing because he had been breaking the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty of which Syria was a signatory.

General Suleiman was furious and wanted to launch Scud missiles at Israel, he had just lost any chance of a nuclear weapon. Israel had him assassinated by snipers while he was at his summer residence on the Mediterranean coast.

Since 2010 Bashar Al-Assad has been the President of a country riven by a civil war with who knows how many factions fighting him and each other. That he has survived is some kind of tribute and it now seems that he may well win his country back. He has been protective of all the minorities in his country, the Kurds have a right to be suspicious, Hafez was not their friend but that is another story. Bashar will not contemplate giving them their wish of a homeland though he may get some respite while they recover from their recent sufferings. It is also unlikely that he will recover the Golan Heights, Israel has no need to hand anything over and will surely still want to reserve the east bank of the Sea of Galilee for itself. Would Bashar be happy with anything less than everything. Who can tell. He has caused more than enough mischief for the Israelis, they will not wish to reward him, it looks like more of the same old stalemate for the foreseeable future unless the Sultan (Turkish President Erdogan) loses the plot completely. Presently the Russians stand between the Turkish backed “militia” and Kurdish forces in Robani. A kind of Mexican standoff, who will blink first.

© well_chuffed 2019

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