Skip to main content
stephen starr

The Syrian government has a history of coming out on top even as it appears to have conceded important ground.

In 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a huge car bomb in Beirut. Syria and its backers inside Lebanon were blamed. It was a watershed moment: hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in a central Beirut square to protest Syria's presence in the country and the Syrian army was forced to end the 29-year occupation of its tiny neighbour.

Yet, only four years later, Saad Hariri – Rafik's son and then-U.S.-backed prime minister – was called to Damascus, tail between legs, to visit Bashar al-Assad; it was an extraordinary turnaround of fortune at the time.

In 2008, President Assad was a guest of honour of President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris during France's Bastille Day celebrations and, remarkably, was voted CNN Arabic's Man of the Year in 2009.

More recently, Damascus deftly saw off an Arab League observer mission to Syria to monitor a ceasefire during the early stages of the conflict in 2011-12. When accompanying the observers to the edge of Rankous, a rebel-held town north of Damascus in January last year, I saw government security officers and state TV do everything short of using physical force to intimidate locals and persuade the Arab observers not to enter the town to hear the rebels' point of view. It was an impressive display of restrained menace.

The observers chose not to enter Rankous and within hours of returning to their Damascus hotel government forces had begun to shell the town.

Several months later, the United Nations observer mission to Syria was mandated to ensure government forces and rebels had stopped using heavy weapons in civilian areas. What happened? With a UN team on the ground just 20 kilometers away in Homs, pro-government militias reportedly killed hundreds of civilians in Houla, one of the darkest episodes of the conflict. Both missions ended in failure and the regime has been able to continue its assault on rebel areas pretty much as it pleases ever since.

Then on Sept. 10, Syrian authorities agreed to a Russian proposal to give up its chemical weapons stocks. Sounds like the West finally got one over on Damascus, right?

The Syrian government has been able to portray the chemical-weapons deal to its supporters as an outright victory against the West by forcing President Obama to back down from a military strike of Syrian targets. By agreeing to give up its chemical stocks, the regime saved its military airports and airfields – vital conventional military assets – from destruction.

Another smart regime ruse has been to blur the lines between itself, 'the regime' and 'Syria,' the country. Watching and reading the propaganda spewed out by state media and officials since March 2011, the rhetoric is that 'Syria' is under attack from jihadists and foreign conspiracies; 'Syria' is fighting to maintain the last secular society in the region; 'Syria' is strong and will not bow to outside threats.

But, of course, it doesn't mean Syria – the government's destruction of towns and cities across the country has made that clear – what it really means is "us, the regime."

Damascus is far from a spent force. Even as it has lost control of much of the north and east of the country, the regime has collapsed – but collapsed inward leaving behind a more durable, violent and determined entity.

Even as specialists on the ground in Syria have begun destroying the government's chemical weapons stock, Mr. Assad's compliance is simply the latest in a string of ploys to dupe the West into believing it's playing ball. One, three or six months from now Washington, London and Paris will find themselves right back where they were on Aug. 20 (before the sarin attack), wondering just how they've been bought and sold.

Well before the revolt broke out, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill visiting Baghdad was told by Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki: "You have absolutely no idea what you're dealing with in Damascus … you have no idea what he [Mr. Assad] is like, you have no idea what conditions he will eventually exact from you and you have no idea the degree to which he will lie to you."

It seems no one in Washington was listening then. Clearly, no one is listening now.

Stephen Starr is the author of 'Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising' and lived in Syria for five years until February 2012.