The view from Assad’s palace

The Syrian president is now far more secure than in 2013, when the West decided not to intervene. The latest air strikes do not change that.

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In all my visits to Damascus I wonder about the view from the presidential palace. It stares down at the city, a series of low-rise buildings about 30 years old. Does Bashar al-Assad have a big window that lets him see right across his capital? What the view from the palace says about the strength, or weakness, of the regime has become a big part of my mental map of the war.

The president is not in the palace all the time. It’s a ceremonial building, for welcoming important guests. Much of the real work is done in a 1960s block of flats and offices in a well-off district of central Damascus. This is also known as a palace, even though it is modest, verging on scruffy; the Assad family does not share some Arab leaders’ liking for white marble, gold fittings and fountains. Unshaven men, dressed in shabby civilian suits and carrying Kalashnikovs, are on guard in the streets around it.

If President Assad has a window in the working palace, he will see neighbours who are among the best-off Syrians still in the country. But if his information is good he will know, or have been told, that everyone is weary of the war and wants it to end. The view from the ceremonial buildings on Mount Mezzeh, also know as the People’s Palace, stretches to the horizon. For years I have imagined the president at his window in that palace assessing the war, seeing his air force striking positions held by the armed opposition, columns of smoke rising from the wreckage of suburbs that were flattened.

On Saturday night, if he had not taken the precaution of heading to a shelter, he would have seen explosions, and cruise missiles moving in their deliberate, deadly way across the night sky. Despite that, I would say that the view from the presidential palace is as good for Assad as it has been since the war started. Eastern Ghouta, the last of what was a crescent of rebel enclaves around Damascus, has been recaptured. It took a fierce offensive, culminating, Britain and its allies say, in a chemical attack. The regime denies it had anything to do with it; the Russians say it was a conspiracy orchestrated by Britain. The governments in London, Washington and Paris don’t believe them.

The fortunes of the Assad regime have been transformed since 2015, when Russia went from being its backer to assuming a full partnership in the war. It joined Iran, the other main ally of Assad’s Syria. Apart from deploying its own men, Iran funded militias, from the powerful, well-trained Lebanese Hezbollah to fearsome Iraqi groups and other Shia Muslim fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Russians are most noticeable in places where there is fighting to be done. At crucial points in the battle for Aleppo, and this year for eastern Ghouta, I’ve seen Russian generals and beefy, well-equipped, serious-faced soldiers wearing the badge of the two-headed eagle. And, of course, its air force has been destructive and decisive.

Foreign intervention has been a big part of Syria’s war; decisions not to intervene, or not to intervene decisively, have been just as important. When Vladimir Putin ordered direct intervention, Barack Obama, still in office, warned that Russia was heading for trouble. He dismissed Putin’s plans. “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work,” he said. “Mr Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength, but out of weakness because his client Mr Assad was crumbling and it was insufficient for him to send arms and money.”

So far Syria has not been a quagmire for President Putin and Russia. From the point of view of the Kremlin, it has been a success. It is a long time since anyone has thought of Russia as a Middle East power, but now it is the main foreign player in Syria.

I thought Obama was being defensive when he dismissed Russia’s intervention in 2015. He did not believe he had made a mistake two years earlier when he wobbled away from his own red line that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would bring American retribution. But plenty of others did. When chemical weapons were used on 21 August 2013 in eastern Ghouta, killing maybe more than a thousand, the Americans and their allies blamed Assad. The US president decided against bombing in return for a promise that Syria would give up its chemical weapons.

At that time the Assad regime was much weaker than it is now. A bombing campaign led by the Americans might have caused it real damage. Damascus emptied in the dog days of that summer as we all waited for what seemed to be a certain attack. I interviewed a few women as they sunned themselves next to empty swimming pools, making fun of all those who had left for their families’ home villages. But most were not like that. A senior member of the regime summoned me to the working palace to ask, nervously, what it was like to be bombed by the Americans. I said they would hear great thunderclaps across the city, but the attacks would be very accurate, so staying away from obvious targets, such as the palace we were sitting in, might be advisable. I wasn’t giving away secrets. Convoys of military vehicles were already moving weapons and supplies out of bases that might get hit.

Decisive action by the US, Britain and France in 2013 would have changed the war, but it would not have ended. It might even have been worse, as an emboldened opposition tried to finish off a weakened regime. But Britain’s then prime minister, David Cameron, lost a vote for military action. Obama had never had his heart set on bombing and pulled back. That left the French ready for the fight, but they dropped out because they were left on their own.

The difference between Russia and the three Western powers is that when Putin intervened he knew what he wanted. The regime, with or without Assad, would be saved. He took up Assad’s position: that anyone who picked up a gun to fight the regime was a terrorist. The West’s thinking was never as clear. After the catastrophic experience in Iraq, there was no appetite to intervene in Syria. In the end the West backed some armed groups, but never decisively. The Saudi, Turkish and Qatari governments did the same. Perhaps it was the right decision not to intervene. Western attempts to bend and break the Middle East to its will in the past century have rarely gone well. Misplaced intervention and turning a blind eye to the activities of dictators friendly to the West have been a major reason for decades of instability and brutality.

At the beginning of the war many rebel fighters who did not appear to be extremists told me in eastern Ghouta that they wanted the West to give them the tools to finish the job. It did not take long to realise that would not be happening. I wonder what happened to the men I met at the beginning of Syria’s dance of death, armed with light weapons and high hopes of freedom. 

Jeremy Bowen is the Middle East Editor at the BBC. Follow him on Twitter: @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge