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George Morris

Tie-wearing fascists: Western elites do business with Assad

Sarkozy and his wife lunch with President Assad and his wife, Asma in 2010 [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 December, 2016

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Comment: Western elites find it hard to believe Assad is a monster because he walks, talks and dresses rather like them, writes George Morris

The Syrian socialist and writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh says that there are two types of fascist destroying his country; the fascists who wear ties and the fascists who have beards.

In humanitarian terms, it's quite clear that the tie-wearing fascists are incomparably worse than the bearded ones. While most people in the west worry about the risk of terrorism, fascists wearing ties are fulfilling the threat they made when President Bashar al-Assad was challenged in 2011: "Bashar or we burn the country".

America's new president-elect likes authoritarian oligarchs such as Vladimir Putin, and brutal strongmen such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, so it comes as no surprise that Assad has hailed him as a "natural ally".

It's clear that Trump is much more relaxed about the prospect of Assad staying in Damascus than any morally normal human being should be. In the age of Trump, we can expect a strengthening of the alignment between Washington and Damascus that has long been implicit in Obama's catastrophic Syria "strategy". The implicit will become explicit, and appeasement will become complicity.

But Trump is not alone in the West in failing to realise, or care, that Bashar is one of the most brutal tyrants of our times. In September a British delegation visited Assad to discuss the persecution of the country's Christians by jihadist groups.

One of the dictator's guests, Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, asked on his return why Assad had been "demonised". "With all my experience," he wrote in The Telegraph, "I cannot say he is the worst of all".

The extermination of half a million people aside, Bashar's just like us, right?

In October, Lord Oxford, a member of the House of Lords and great-grandson of a former British prime minister, addressed a conference in Damascus that was widely dismissed as a regime propaganda exercise.

Even the supposedly neutral United Nations has been accused of maintaining too cosy a relationship with the regime, allowing billions of dollars of aid to be manipulated by Damascus, and giving jobs to people connected with Assad's clique.

It's clearly not just Trump who can sympathise with Assad, and forgive some of his most atrocious war crimes. Assad is the sort of man some western elites can do business with, a man who they find hard to believe is a monster because he walks, talks and dresses rather like them. After all, these fascists wear ties.

Assad and his wife have a remarkably similar background to many elite figures in the West. Like Libya's Gaddafi dynasty, the House of Assad has strong connections to the United Kingdom. Bashar was studying ophthalmology in London when his brother Bassel dashed his chances of becoming president by smashing his Mercedes into a roundabout at 80mph.

Assad as the last bulwark of civilisation against terrorism is a laughable idea

His wife, Asma, is British-Syrian, went to a private school, studied at King’s College, London and spent time working as a banker before becoming First Lady. The regime has sought to capitalise on Asma and build up an image for her as a sort of Syrian Princess Diana, including through her involvement in charity work. Her philanthropy, alas, does not extend to asking her husband to stop gassing Syria's civilians.

Even the regime's poisonous propagandist, Bouthaina Shaaban, was educated at the University of Warwick, and the language she uses in interviews with western media outlets suggests the extent to which she understands western liberals and how to appeal to their values; Assad means stability, secularism, safety from the massed forces of jihad. For this, Syria must burn, but the ends justify the means.

It is, of course, nonsense. The idea that Assad can be portrayed as a force for stability when he barely governs his disintegrating country, when he relies on foreign militias, jihadists and sectarian fanatics to provide his ground troops and Russia to provide most of his air power, is absurd.

Assad as the last bulwark of civilisation against terrorism is a laughable idea, given it is widely known that the government flooded the country with jihadists to swallow up the revolution, and that his regime appears to have extensive links with IS.

Assad and his wife have a remarkably similar background to many elite figures in the West

For some people, Assad's actions since 2011 haven't been enough to put them off. The extermination of half a million people aside, Bashar's just like us, right? It might not be completely delusional, after all.

Perhaps Shaaban is genuinely concerned about the rights of women, and is in some sense a feminist. Maybe Asma actually cares about her charity work. But even if this were true, these progressive values went out of the window when it mattered, when the regime decided to respond to peaceful protests with cold, bloody murder, when they decided to side with a cynical tyrant and his campaign of destruction rather than the people in the street.

For Trump, brutality is a characteristic of strong leadership. But subtler, cultural forces bring far too many foolish westerners into sympathy with the brutal Syrian regime.

When western elites look to Syria, they see a complex mess of different factions and fighting groups, battling for places that many of them - many more than the maligned Gary Johnson - cannot name, the only people they feel similar to are the Assadist elites.

Bashar dresses like them, smart suits and ties, parading presidentially around his tacky palace. Asma al-Assad speaks English with a British accent. Bouthaina Shaaban doesn't sound all that different, sometimes, from some of our own leftist and liberal commentariat.

All three have been educated in the West. All three talk - with however much vacuity - about secularism and multiculturalism. What if, when western elites look at these fascists who wear ties, they struggle to believe that they are the worst people in Syria because, to some extent, they see people like themselves?



George Morris is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge and a commissioning editor for Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy.

Follow him on Twitter: @George_B_Morris

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

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