Syria’s fallen out of the headlines of late, but, with over 350,000 people killed in the civil war, millions displaced, widespread destruction and no sign as yet of an end to it, it really shouldn’t have done. This programme began by informing us that Hafez-al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor as president of Syria, used to make male soldiers kill puppies in front of him, and female soldiers bite the heads off snakes. His own brother tried to overthrow him, whilst he was ill. And his eldest son, Bassel, had someone thrown in prison for beating him in a horse race. What a lovely family. This is the dynasty which rules Syria, and has done so for nearly half a century.
It’d be interesting to see some statistics on how many supposed republics are ruled by political dynasties. The al-Assads have been running Syria since Hafez took power in a coup in 1970. He spent $1 billion building himself a palace – and that’s not including the cost of his separate summer palace. We saw a lot of pictures of the palace, and of the family, but we didn’t really hear that much about what was actually going on. No explanation of the historical background, and the complex ethno-religious situation within Syria. No-one even mentioned the crucial fact of the al-Assads being Alawites, which is pretty fundamental. And not all that much was said about the conflict between the hardliners and the liberals. The focus was all on the personalities of the al-Assads and the tensions within the family.
It was quite interesting, though. With Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, looking like his chosen heir until the attempted coup in 1984, and then Bassel al-Assad set to succeed his father, until he was killed in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was free to do as he liked. He qualified as an eye surgeon, and worked in London. Various people who knew him then spoke about what a jolly nice chap he was, and how he liked listening to Phil Collins. And that was where he met his future wife, Asma Akras.
Asma al-Assad is intriguing. She was born, to Syrian parents, and brought up in London, speaks like an upper-middle-class woman from South East England – which I suppose is exactly what she is -, has a first class degree from King’s London, worked in investment banking, and had a place on an MBA course in Harvard which she turned down to marry Bashar. Brilliantly intelligent woman. Very attractive as well. And she’s a Sunni, rather than an Alawite. It was suggested that her matchmaking mum pushed her and Bashar together, but I can’t imagine either of them choosing a marriage partner they didn’t genuinely want. When Hafez al-Assad died, she, then engaged to Bashar, travelled round Syria incognita, speaking to people about their concerns. Reportedly doesn’t get on with her mother-in-law. Nor her sister-in-law. I’d love to know what she really makes of the way things have turned out. Does she genuinely have liberal leanings, which she’s forced to repress? Or is she just as conniving and power-mad as the rest of the family seem to be? I think it’s telling that she doesn’t say much these days: she probably doesn’t dare. She’s currently being treated for early stage breast cancer.
It was only when we got to the death of Hafez that the programme stopped seeming like an edition of Hello! magazine and actually started talking about Syria. Even then, there was no explanation of the issues with the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Druze, the Ismailis, and the various Christian groups. But we did hear about the cautious reforms during 2000 and early 2001. And the big question the programme seemed to be asking was what might have happened had it not been for “9/11”, which happened only fourteen months after Bashar became president.
Large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood political prisoners were released. There are different ways of looking at this. Was it a political amnesty aimed at trying to bring about some sort of reconciliation between the different factions in Syria? Well, not according to this. The argument here was that the 2003 Western invasion of Iraq panicked Bashar al-Assad into fearing that Syria might be next, and that he “unleashed” the prisoners so that they’d head off to Iraq and bog Britain and America down.
I’m not getting this argument. Why would anyone have thought the West was about to invade Syria? The al-Assads and the West were pretty pally in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. We saw pictures of Bashar and Tony Blair driving around Syria together, and the al-Assads meeting the Queen for tea at Buckingham Palace. And didn’t we get ourselves into enough of a mess in Iraq without wanting to invade anywhere else as well. Am I missing something here? OK, I can see that it may have been a good excuse for him to stop any movement towards reform, but the idea of a “next stop Damascus” panic doesn’t really make much sense. Well, it doesn’t to me, anyway!
And there endeth the first episode. So – no historical background, no explanations about the different ethnic and religious groups in Syria, and some very strange interpretations of the events of the early 2000s. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next. But we now know that Bashar al-Assad likes listening to Phil Collins. Just in case anyone didn’t get this message clearly enough, In The Air Tonight was played. Yep. Thank you, BBC. The war in Syria is incredibly complicated. This programme did very little to explain it.