By Robert Fisk
President Bashar Assad
Obama roars. World trembles. If only.
Obama says Assad must "step aside". Do we really think Damascus trembles? Or is going to? Indeed, the titan of the White House only dared to go this far after condemnation of Bashar al-Assad by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the EU and Uncle Tom Cobley and all (except, of course, Israel – another story). The terrible triplets – Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel – did their mimicking act a few minutes later.
But truly, are new sanctions against Assad "and his cronies" – I enjoyed the "cronies" bit, a good old 1665 word as I'm sure Madame Clinton realised, although she was principally referring to Bashar's businessman cousin Rami Makhlouf – anything more than the usual Obama hogwash? If "strong economic sanctions" mean a mere freeze on petroleum products of Syrian origin, the fact remains that Syria can scarcely produce enough oil for itself, let alone for export. A Swedish government agency recently concluded that Syria was largely unaffected by the world economic crisis – because it didn't really have an economy.
Of course, in the fantasy of Damascus – where Bashar appears to live in the same "sea of quietness" in which the Egyptian writer Mohamed Heikel believes all dictators breathe – the world goes on as usual. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – another earth-trembler if ever there was one – no sooner demands an "immediate" end to "all military operations and mass arrests", than dear old Bashar tells him that "military and police action" has stopped.
Well, blow me down, as the Syrian population must now be saying. So what were all those reports coming in yesterday from Syria, of widespread gunfire in Latakia, of troops looting private property in the city, of a man arrested in his hospital bed in Zabadani, of snipers still on the rooftops of government buildings in Deir el-Zour? Crimes against humanity? Needless to say, the Syrian government knows nothing about this.
Besides, hasn't Gaddafi been accused of "crimes against humanity"? Wasn't he supposed to have "stepped aside" six months ago? And isn't Gaddafi – a little more fragile now, of course – still in Tripoli? And this is after months of Nato bombardment, something that Bashar has nothing to worry about. Well, well, well.
Bashar will also have noticed a weird mantra adopted by the Great Roarer of Washington. Repeatedly, Assad was told by Obama to "step aside" – never "step down" – and to "get out of the way", whatever that means. Intriguingly, Madame Clinton used the phrase "step down" yesterday afternoon – and then immediately corrected herself to "step aside".
The Great and the Good don't use these phrases by chance. The implication still seems to be that "step aside" might allow Bashar to stay in Syria but let others take over, rather go on the run with a war crimes tribunal hanging over his head. Which is what, I suspect, yesterday's roaring was all about.
The real fear for Bashar is not oil sanctions but banks – especially the £12bn in foreign reserves that existed in Syria's Central Bank in February, a sum which is now being depleted by around £50m a week. In May, Syria's foreign minister – the mighty (physically) Walid Moallem – asked Baghdad for cheap Iraqi oil. Nearly 10 per cent of Syria's banking deposits disappeared in the first four months of 2011; £1.8bn was withdrawn, some of it ending up in Lebanese banks.
All in all, then, a nasty economic climate in which to go on bashing your own people. So who cares what Obama says? Certainly not the Syrians, which is why they are now trying to set up a "High Commission for Leading the Revolution" to co-ordinate protesters in the country's provinces.
This will indeed also worry Assad, who will have to send his spooks out to identify members of this "high commission" (which sounds unhappily like a colonial name) so they can spend some rest-and-recreation in the Latakia sports stadium under friendly interrogation from the state security police.
This commentary was published in The Independent on 19/08/2011