During his interview with the British daily the Sunday Times, embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attempted to provoke Arabs’ fears and stir their emotions. He claimed Arabs had two options, either his regime or al-Qaeda’s rule. He entreated the Western public opinion by saying: “There must be feelings of worry about the Middle East because we are the last stronghold for secularism in the region. If there are worries about the Middle East, then the entire world must be worried about its stability.” So now, he alleges his regime has become secular!
Intimidating the West by saying “al-Qaeda” is the alternative to his regime has been the basis of his propaganda strategy since the beginning of the popular revolution. His political and media speeches have revolved around this aspect ever since because he knows the West adopts and supports popular movements, like it did in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, but fights it and opposes it if they are extremist religious groups, like it does in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Adorning the regime’s image
He described his regime as secular out of his desire to adorn the regime’s image. Realistically, his regime has nothing to do with secularism. It is a fascist, oppressive, security and military regime. It is what he inherited from his father who established this regime following a military coup forty years ago. Assad’s regime resembles North Korea’s and has nothing to do with secularism. Just because Assad does not adopt religious intellect does not mean he is secular.
On the contrary, Assad adopts a detestable sectarianism policy as positions and benefits are exclusively granted to those close to him from the Alawite sect. Secularism, as a part of expanded liberal intellect, is based on respecting freedoms. Syria, however, is ruled by a strict security regime. Until a while ago, the regime arrested people if it is discovered that they own fax machines which can only be possessed following state security approval! Similar strict measures apply to details of everyday life, from opening commercial shops to making financial transactions.
Syria has never been a secular country and its regime has never been liberal despite the elegance of Assad’s wife, Asmaa. It is naive to describe regimes by judging appearances. If we are to do so, we will conclude that Cuba is an Islamic country because of President Castro’s thickly-grown beard!
Tunisia was a security regime and Libya, under Qaddafi’s governance, was like Syria under the Assad family’s rule. These regimes were not religious but security ones. People in these countries complained of suppression and police siege.
There is not a single Arab country whose regime can be described as secular or its society as liberal. Even Lebanon which is the less extremist among Arab countries is ruled by Sunni, Shiite, Christian and Druze religious sects.
As for the besieged Assad, he knows since the beginning of war against terrorism that he pushed the opposition towards the extremists. He knows that convincing the world that the opposition are groups that resemble “Al-Qaeda” may turn the public opinion against it, not only in the West but even in Arab areas that fight such groups. Half of Assad’s speech during the interview with the daily was addressed to the Western public opinion. He tried to convince it that he was like the West fighting Islamic extremism! Assad, however, is a supporter of extremist groups. He is a supporter of the extremist Shiite Iranian regime and the very extremist Hezbollah. In addition to this support, there are his ties to extremist Sunni organizations like Fateh al-Islam which fought Hariri’s government in Lebanon as well as ties with Iraqi al-Qaeda movements that committed murders and wreaked havoc in Iraq.
The region’s contradictions
Those who study the affairs of our region cannot overlook the reunion of these contradictions which despite their strangeness are justified. Iran which is an extremist Shiite regime supports al-Qaeda, the extremist Sunni organization, despite the historical enmity among the fanatics from both sects because they agree on the same goals. Most veteran al-Qaeda leaders are currently in Iran. Seif al-Adel, one of al-Qaeda’s leaders in Iran, has been residing there since the 90's. Osama Bin Laden’s children resorted to Iran as well after fleeing Afghanistan and they did not leave it until three years ago.
Although he is religious, Syria’s president is the biggest supporter of jihadi groups that revolve in the orbit of his regime, like the Hamas Movement, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement, the Palestinian Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, almost all jihadi groups in Iraq and of course the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Assad today is trying to convince the West that he is secular and liberal and that he is fighting Islamic extremism. Those who work in the field of politics, however, know Assad’s regime very well. They know it is nothing more than an extension of the extremist political and religious Iranian regime. His father adopted the case of Arab Baath to justify his seizure of power and continuity of sectarian rule. After him, his son sought the company of long-bearded men from supreme leader Khamenei to Hassan Nasrallah. He resorted to holding Islamic jihadi conferences in Damascus.
After the revolution erupted, he now speaks of secularism and claims it!
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.