Syria: logic in a land of make-believe

I got into an online discussion yesterday with Charles Shoebridge, an ex-soldier and former police officer who disputes the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. One of the questions he asked was why, if the regime was making chemical weapons in secret, it would give the game away by using them. He wrote in a tweet:

“You think that a government pursuing a secret chemical weapons programme would then betray that entire effort by using chemical weapons against some children, at massive political cost and for absolutely no strategic gain? That defies any sense of rationality … it sounds like clutching at straws.”

Questions of this kind probably account for a large part of the scepticism that we see online in relation to the conflict in Syria. There’s a lot about the regime’s behaviour that doesn’t seem to make sense — at least to people raised in western democracies.

It’s important, though, to take account of differences in the political culture. Actions that might cause “massive political cost” to a democratic government don’t necessarily have the same effect in Syria. For a regime whose primary aim is to retain power by any means, the cost-benefit equation is different.

Put simply, what Charles Shoebridge sees as a problem isn’t one that would be likely to bother the Assad regime. A story from a few years ago illustrates this point.

In October 2005 Syria’s interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, was shot dead in his office. There were several reasons why the regime might have wanted to eliminate him, but after a one-day investigation they announced that his death was suicide. The official report stated that the minister had been found lying with a revolver in his hand and his finger on the trigger.

Privately, many Syrians refused to believe the regime’s story — and were probably right to do so. But it didn’t really matter to the regime, though, whether people believed it or not. The official narrative of suicide served to keep the regime’s hands looking clean but the unofficial narrative — of murder or enforced suicide — was useful too: it helped to maintain fear of the regime’s power.

In Baathist eyes, even bad PR can have a silver lining. I once had a chance meeting with a Syrian diplomat just a few hours after a bombing in Beirut (for which Syria was being blamed). I asked him how he felt about the allegations against Syria and he replied: “Sometimes, even if you haven’t done something, there’s no harm in people thinking that you have.”

I’ve been following Syria, off and on, since the early 2000s and I’ve talked to plenty of Baathist officials. After a while you start to get a feel for the way things work there. What might seem irrational at first often turns out to have an odd kind of logic.

Take, for example, the US-led airstrikes on Friday night which have been hailed in Damascus as a victory for Syria. In the words of one government minister, “We had a double victory, first the clearing of Ghouta and then the air strikes.”

“All the Syrians are proud of their army and confident in their president” a member of parliament was quoted as saying. “They know they can resist this sort of attack.”

At one cathedral in Syria on Sunday, worshippers showed Christian charity by praying not only for their fellow Syrians but also for the souls of “those who violate international law”.

The Assad regime considers itself part of the “resistance” bloc — which generally means resistance to Israel and American influence. Getting bombed occasionally by western powers is a minor inconvenience and, most importantly, it helps to confirm Syria’s “resistance” status.

Something similar happened in Libya when President Reagan denounced Gadafy as a “mad dog” and launched a bombing raid which, among other things, partly destroyed Gadafy’s house. The remains of the house were carefully preserved as a memento of the occasion and for years afterwards visiting westerners were treated to tours of it.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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