by Paul Goodman
One of the curses of British politics is MPs departing for a foreign country for a week, and returning seven days later as instant experts on everything about it. I tried to avoid that trap when writing about Syria on this site almost three years ago, having been there very briefly with other Parliamentarians, and hope that I penned an illusionless account. I drew three main conclusions. First, Syria was in religious terms rather attractive: it remained an outpost of relative toleration in an increasingly fissured region. Second, it was, in political terms extremely unattractive: a one-party state, governed in theory by Baathism and run in practice by an Alawite clan network. Finally, it was best to engage with the regime rather than isolate it, in order to try – without much prospect of success – to wean it away from Iran and towards the west.
It's remarkable that after three months of protests in Syria, attempts by the regime to blame everyone but itself for the unrest, and atrocious responses from the security forces including the recent massacre in Deraa, some commentators are still fascinated by the intentions of the President, Bashar al-Assad. Some view him as a Baathist hardliner, a willing instigator of the slaughter of his own people. Others see him as a potential moderniser, a British-educated ophthalmologist married to a glamorous banker from Acton, who may yet outmanoevre the party nomenclatura. The latter hope that once the protests are ended, al-Assad will be able to persuade Syria's ruling elites that – having established what they'd see as their authority – they have no alternative but to effect political and economic reform.
This, as I say, is remarkable, because it scarcely matters any longer what al-Assad's intentions are. Yes, Syria's religious toleration is worth preserving. And yes again, a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Damascus would be no more respectful of human dignity than this Alawite one. But no, we shouldn't have business as usual with a regime which responds to peaceful protests by shooting civilians. If al-Assad has been unable to persuade his fellow-Baathist family – in particular his brother, Maher al-Assad, who runs the security forces, and his notoriously corrupt cousin, Rami Makhlouf – to throw their weight behind reform to date, it is impossible to believe that he'd be able to do so now (even if he wants to, which is, as we've seen, debatable). Robert Halfon called for action on this site last week.
What might such action be? As I've argued previously, intervening in Libya to protect Benghazi was militarily straightfoward, and the incursion to date has been accomplished at bearable cost and, thank goodness, no loss of our troops to date. Syria is a different matter: there's no obvious rebel regional base, no Arab League support for military action. Halfon suggested a U.N Resolution, but other Arab countries have little appetite for this. Others have floated general non-cooperation with the regime; a travel ban and assets freeze for key figures in the regime; a UN investigation into the violence; EU sanctions – which apparently haven't been ruled out. None of these measures would stop the killings in Syria. But they would send a signal to Damascus that more engagement with Britain and the west is no longer an option.
Wiliam Hague yesterday told the Commons that Syria has reached "a fork in the road", and said that "we will work with our European partners and others to take measures, including sanctions, that will have an impact on the regime". His words signalled the end of the affair with Syria, for as long as can be foreseen. For the best part of ten years, a dream has tantalised western diplomats, with some of the allure of the prospect of Damascus that's dangled before Prince Faisal by T.E.Lawrence in David Lean's mesmeric film: that al-Assad could be lured away from Iran, that the Baathist establishment would reform itself and the country, that Syria's religious tolerance would blossom further and influence Islam abroad, that this harsh, endangered, fragile and beautiful country would become a magnet for western tourism. That dream was probably always an illusion. But whether so or not, it is over.