Remembering Syria

We have been clearing out papers in our office. One of those for the bin was a 2005 speech by President Assad of Syria at Damascus University long before the current civil war.

TPPR had acted in a number of Syrian contexts – helping to found the British Syrian Society, supporting cultural initiatives, working with the London Embassy on the Presidential visit in 2002 and on public attitudes after the Hariri assassination, organising a media visit to the Presidential Palace and doing some advisory work of a fairly standard type for Asma Al-Assad, the President’s wife.

When it became clear that protests were turning into a vicious civil war, we watched our friends fall evenly into two camps – half became supporters, even financiers, of the moderate Sunni opposition while half, also reformers by nature, retreated into a shell as things started to worsen. We withdrew from all involvement in the country in 2011. There is a point when no one who is not a national of a country should seek to have a say in a country’s future but we retained our friendships where we could.

Client confidentiality casts its veil over further detailed comment but the arrival of the long forgotten Damascus Speech reminded us that here were straws in the wind – at the moment when a ‘Government’ becomes a ‘Regime’ in the eyes of the West, just as Assad was bringing a new generation into power but not moving fast enough for the Western modernisers.

Sometimes Assad sounds a little paranoid but what he says has to be put in the context of decades of Arab awareness that other powers did and do interfere in the internal workings of post-colonial Arab regimes. He refers to ‘the seriousness of the conspiracies against Syria’ on the first page and before too long he adds:

A number of international circles and their agents in our Arab establishment, have been trying to promote their destructive political schemes under exciting names which touch people’s feelings and emotions and have been targeting people’s minds and souls before targeting their countries and invading their national borders.

He refers to media campaigns, ‘high technology’ and ‘money’. His speech is directed at the young because the young (in his view) are targeted by this strategy. He argues for youthful engagement in defence of national independence against ‘subordination’: ‘They want us without a memory so that they can plan a future for us’.

The discourse is pure Arab nationalism but, whether we think him paranoid or with an acute sense of a strategy lying behind colour revolutions and protests that were to emerge from Tunis to Kiev, what matters is that he genuinely thought that his country was the target of a deliberate attempt to impose political, economic and cultural reform along lines whose terms were dictated by others.

A decade on, here is the nub of our point – not that the Governments of Syria or Russia (or whoever) are necessarily right or wrong but that Western policy, in its absolute sense of its own rightness, created, almost systematically, a stubborn ‘better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ mentality that was never going to be quite as unpopular internally as outside liberal reformers had hoped.

We saw the beginning of the current brutal crisis as early as the Presidential Visit in 2002 when someone somewhere in the FCO had not done their homework about what the Syrians expected from the visit and the British side were clearly obsessed by American reactions. It went downhill from then on. An awful lot of people are dead and homeless because a gap opened up between sides. My decent reformers fell right into that hole.