This opinion was published in The Independent on 01/05/2011
What's happening to the Arab spring? The high hopes of the early months of 2011 are being whittled away by shaky footage of corpses on the streets of North Africa and the Middle East and reports of secret trials. Libya now has to vie for media attention with Syria, where troops opened fire on protesters two days ago in President Assad's home town of Latakia. Some 500 people have been killed in anti-government protests.
Syria isn't Libya. There isn't as yet an opposition stronghold such as Benghazi, and the Syrian regime is Baath, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein. This unpleasant union of Arab nationalism and European fascism had its origins in Damascus in the 1940s, and the Assad family has run the country with Gestapo-like efficiency for four decades. The last serious uprising was in Hama in 1982.
A European diplomat told me it was the only posting he'd had where he visited the coast and waded out to sea if he wanted to have a private conversation without being bugged.
I once spoke to university students in a café in Homs after giving a lecture; we didn't talk about politics, but a report of what I'd said got to Damascus, via an informer, before I did. I was banned from addressing students in the city, but not from speaking at the President Assad library, which was looked after by a different branch of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency.
In 2002, the old dictator's son, Bashar al-Assad, was granted a photo call with Tony Blair in Downing Street. That evening, I collared a Labour minister and asked him what Blair was doing, giving the young Assad this kind of legitimacy. The minister eyed me nervously and said: "Isn't he all right?"
A few months earlier, Labour had embarked on another mistaken policy, embracing Gaddafi in the hope of love-bombing him into behaving better. Now the coalition has given up on the love, and is only bombing him – justifiably in my view.
I don't think Nato should bomb Syria. The Arab leaders whose support it would need are slow to defend human rights, while Assad's closeness to the unstable Ahmadinejad regime in Iran introduces further uncertainty. Sanctions, travel bans, and freezing bank accounts, as discussed by the EU on Friday, should be tried, but are painfully slow to take effect.
The so-called realpolitik that's led Western leaders to soft-pedal on murderers like Assad and Gaddafi, should end; Syrians who oppose the regime would be hugely cheered by indictments of their leaders at the International Criminal Court. We should also get satellite phones to protesters, to break the news blackout.
My friend Faraj Bayrakdar served almost 14 years in Syrian jails. In Saydnaya prison, he wrote "the walls don/ a hue of deep shame". Shame is what these regimes should be confronted with, but poets appreciate its power more readily than politicians.