Even as the fighting raged in Homs, Aleppo, Latakiyyah and elsewhere in what was an increasingly unwelcoming country, President Bashar Al Assad defied Syrians when he claimed that the “crisis” would only be solved by stamping out “terror,” which required that he “strike it with an iron fist.”
Although many others used the tactic as they pretended to rule, the method gained notoriety in the Middle East during the Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980s, when Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicised his security forces’ tactics to use “force, strength and blows” to bring the uprisings under control. “The use of force, including beatings,” Rabin declared at the time, “undoubtedly has brought about the impact we wanted — the strengthening of the population’s fear” of the Israel Defence Forces. Of course, Rabin’s “iron-fist” policy resulted in hundreds of fractured limbs, hands and skulls among Palestinian men, women and children that, according to Ze’ev Schiff, military editor of the independent daily Ha’aretz, “provided a green light to many soldiers to express their frustration and their anti-Arab sentiments.”
Similar frustrations and anti-Syrian emotions were visible in the Levant as leading human rights organisations assembled a large corpus of the many atrocities committed by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and various government militias that, shamefully, were reciprocated by opposition groups anxious to extract revenge. Two years into the civil war, few harboured any doubts that Syria witnessed a particularly violent chapter in its history, with no end in sight.
Yet, to now hear a head of state dismiss political opposition to his regime as a “failure” and to rule out that the Syrian National Coalition could play a role in solving the country’s war, smacked of the delusional. By stating as Al Assad opined that no “sane human being would think that terrorism could be dealt with through political negotiations,” the Syrian president mimicked Rabin, whose brutal crackdowns gained unprecedented dishonour. Who could possibly respect a dissident after labelling them a terrorist? Who could recognise the millions who withdrew their legitimising support of an utterly corrupt regime as citizens free to chart the course of their own destinies looked elsewhere?
As if this was not bad enough, the Syrian civil war plunged an entire nation into a devilish abyss, with nearly 150,000 people killed, millions lingering as refugees, utter destruction of entire cities, all of which thrust Syria into an unprecedented economic crisis that will take generations to mend.
Admittedly, Bashar Al Assad understood that Syria’s economic woes “were linked to the security situation, and they can only be solved by striking terror,” though his latest decree to ban the use of foreign currency in commercial transactions, spoke volumes. Since it was now prohibited to engage in any commercial transaction using foreign currencies or precious metals, one wondered how many Syrians accepted these rules, aware that the Syrian lira lost three quarters of its value against the US dollar since early 2011. In fact, while a dollar fetched 50 liras in March 2011, it was now worth more than 200 liras.
Amazingly, the ban on currency conversions came after the May 27 announcement that Iran agreed to open a generous credit line — to supply Syria $3.6 billion (Dh13.2 billion) in oil in exchange for the right to invest in the country — though this latest measure apparently failed to uplift expectations. On the contrary, inflation remained high — variously estimated to hover around 190 per cent per year — which meant one of two things: either Syrians concluded that the Iranian deal won’t happen or that it could not change the situation on the ground.
Lest one conclude that the Syrian president’s latest announcements, including undeniable “victories” of the SAA in occupying the Khalidiyyah strategic district of the central city of Homs after a year-long siege were only addressed to boost internal morale, it was important to place this last act of defiance in perspective.
Al Assad’s comments came amid faltering efforts to convene the moribund US-Russian proposals for peace talks painstakingly negotiated by Lakhdar Brahimi. Now that Damascus ruled out a role for the Syrian National Coalition in Geneva, his description of the Ahmad Al Jarba led coalition as an unreliable “failure” that could not possibly have a “role in solving the crisis,” illustrated what may be his next step. The president accused the Coalition of “being on the payroll of more than one Gulf country,” as well as “blaming the opposition forces of committing acts of terrorism, both of which granted him license to kill with impunity. Rather than assume his fair share of the blame, he dismissed aid from Iran, Russia, China and North Korea as innocent trade, though many saw through the stratagems.
Sadly, Al Assad was determined to affirm the idea that he was Syria’s Yitzhak Rabin. He was ready to strike everywhere and he concluded that his iron-fist policy was necessary “to get the political process moving on the right track.” On August 1, Al Assad affirmed that he was “sure of victory” though it may be useful to remind him that the authority of fear was now part of Arab history, with little relevance to the present. No heavy-handed army that relied on violence could secure permanent stability. What was required, and what Al Assad lacked, was moral authority to rule with justice.