Two years into the conflict in Syria and the mask has slipped revealing that Assad is willing to enter the heart of darkness and take down the state along with his regime.
Living in Syria in the period 2005-2007, one was always struck by the blatant contradictions that characterised Assad's rule. In the jasmine-scented alleyways of the Old City of Damascus you never felt threatened by criminality and away from the bustle of the Souk there was a pervading sense of peacefulness -- yet this was a country living in a seemingly infinite state of emergency, with feared secret police forces and infamous prisons. If you wanted to find out about the workings of the State or the actions of its government the very last place you'd go is the Ministry of Information. State newspapers would seemingly report anything but the news. The country was technically at war with Israel but the Golan had been quiet for decades, with tourists to the town of Quneitra treated to an experience similar to visiting a museum rather than a potential flashpoint on the border of contested occupied territory. Beyond the facade of elections Government Ministers and Parliamentarians were mouthpieces for Assad and the Shadow State that kept his regime in power. The ubiquitous poster of Bashar and his father watched down on you everywhere you went -- Big Brother was indeed watching you.
Bashar is perhaps the ultimate product of his own father's Orwellian system where black is white, right is wrong and the mass slaughter of your own people is the legitimate defence of the realm against international conspiracy. Characterised as the quintessential patriot; a quiet, unassuming, professional healer, Bashar supposedly reluctantly returned to Syria in 1994 to prepare for rule after the death of his older brother. Yet today he has become welded to the regime which in turn remains in a deadly and perhaps fatal embrace with the Syrian state.
The son has crossed the Rubicon and has left behind the suffocating authoritarianism of 'peacetime' rule in favour of the tactics of a winner-takes-all fight to the death in the 'war on terror' he sees himself fighting. A conflict that started with the arrest and torture of children in March 2011 has escalated into a fight that brings into question Syria's continued existence as a viable state. Today the regime is literally going ballistic having made the decision that firing SCUD missiles at its biggest city makes tactical sense. Human Rights Watch reported in February that "at least four ballistic missiles that struck populated areas in the city of Aleppo and a town in Aleppo governorate during the week of February 17, 2013. The attacks killed more than 141 people, including 71 children, and caused immense physical destruction."
The regime's tactics of self-destruction of course predate the decision to use weapons that have wiped out square blocks of residential housing. We've seen a steady gradation in the use of force from tear gas and small arms to barrel bombs rolled from aircraft and trenches dug around districts before they are hammered with artillery. Increasingly heavy stand-off weapons have been complimented by the most intimate of killing chronicled in the hundreds of videos released as part of perhaps the world's first "YouTube Civil War." Soldiers have captured rebels and used their mobiles to phone their mothers who then hear them being tortured and shot. Skinned bodies with genitalia removed are returned to their families, people are buried alive or massacred with knives. 75 percent of Syria's hospitals are either partially or completely destroyed, conservative estimates tell of $11 billion worth of damage to the rest of the country's infrastructure, the economy is steadily collapsing, close to a million people have fled the country, almost 20 percent of the population have been forced from their homes, cases of typhoid and hepatitis A are rising, there is no end in sight.
Bashar has evolved from an Orwellian Big Brother to a figure akin to Joseph Conrad's Kurtz whose only strategy is to "exterminate all the brutes." The introduction of ballistic missiles into the conflict will of course raise debate around the prospect of chemical weapon use being around the corner. March does not only bring the 2nd year anniversary of the Syria conflict it marks twenty-five years since the Halabja massacre where poisoned gas killed up to 5,000 Iraqi Kurds. As we continue to digest the 'horror' unleashed by the regime to date we should be under no illusions of what could come next and what Syria's Kurtz is capable of.