Whether true or myth the story persists of Potemkin villages, built by Russian minister Grigory Potemkin in 1787, fake settlements presenting the residents as prosperous in order to fool and impress Empress Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea. In the 20th century visitors to the Soviet Union, including George Bernard Shaw and the left-wing author Doris Lessing, were taken to the communist equivalent of a Potemkin village. Blinded by their desire to find the USSSR the Utopia they wanted it to be, they accepted the illusion as genuine.

Our era has witnessed and suffered from the acceptance by many commentators in democratic countries of the illusion of the nature of the regimes and conditions of life in Arab societies. For whatever reason, whether because of postmodern belief in moral relativism, adherence to political correctness, or simply mercenary expectations, these commentators have spurned a rational analysis of the true nature of those societies. Though the events stemming from the Arab Spring have revealed the deficiencies and brutality of Arab systems they have unfortunately not totally dispelled the illusion accepted by so many westerners. Nor have these events sufficiently affected the policy makers in democratic countries, who are still hesitant to condemn the human rights abuses in Arab societies or to mete out punishment for the dictators of those countries.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Syria, ironically a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.  In recent weeks Syria has butchered at least 14,000 of its own people in full view of the eyes of the world. The late dictator, Hafez al-Assad, had ruled as president from 1971, when he seized power in a coup, until his death in June 2000. He governed ruthlessly through a web of security agencies and intelligence operatives. His regime was a corrupt and economically inefficient system which was virtually a family business of fellow Alawites, a sect accounting for about 10 per cent of the Syrian population. He delivered his primary contribution to human rights in February 1982 when he authorized the Syrian army commanded by his younger brother to engage in heavy shelling and poisonous gas to massacre 30,000 of his subjects living in the city of Hama.. His contribution to political philosophy was pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism.

His son, Bashar al-Assad, was an accidental successor because of the death of his older brother in a car accident in 1994. Lulled by the fact that he was a physician trained in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London, and because of his well-educated elegant wife who grew up the daughter of a wealthy family living in London, Bashar was optimistically viewed by some in the West as having the potential to be a more benign, modern leader than his father.

For the sake of reassuring easily convinced Westerners, Bashar immediately engaged in setting up his own version of a Potemkin village. He released some political prisoners, permitted some forms of free speech, tolerated the so called Damascus Spring, and brought some technocrats into the administration. But few long lasting reforms were implemented, and free speakers soon re-entered prison. Bashar may not have the suavity or personality of his father, but he has shown himself equally ruthless and impervious to good sense. His inner power group, all ruthless individuals, has included his cousin, Atif Najjib, as head of security, his uncle, Maher al-Assad, as commander of the elite Republican Guard and the 4th division of the army, and his brother-in-law, Assef Chawkat, former head of intelligence and deputy chief-of-staff of the army.

Long before the current internal situation the ruthlessness of Bashar was displayed externally. He imposed 30,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon to control the country. He helped the insurgents against Saddam Hussein in 2003.  He was involved in the assassination in 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon. He became friendly with theocratic Iran.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in her speech of June 12, 2012 to the European Parliament, is still blinded by a Potemkin village. In that speech in which she addressed both the situation in Syria and the settlements in Israel she charged Israel rather than Syria with serious violations of international and humanitarian law. While she expressed how she was appalled “by the sickening violence” in Syria, she suggested little more than a “contact group”, an idea already suggested by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan, to pressure and exert influence on the regime, and a call for the Syrian government to implement a humanitarian response plan for which the EU has contributed 28 million euros. This fatuous attitude to a brutal regime slaughtering its own people can be compared with her stronger language in the same speech concerning Israel, that Israeli settlements remain the “key and most serious concern”.  She condemned settlement expansion as illegal under international law. The need to respect international and humanitarian law, which must be observed by Israel, was less pronounced in the case of Syria.

There is some hope that leaders of democratic and other nations will perceive and act on the Syrian deception of a Potemkin village. Turkey has begun protesting against the continuing harsh treatment by Bashar al-Assad against the domestic opponents of his regime, presumably because it has been overwhelmed by thousands of refugees fleeing Syria. Jordan has taken in about 125,000 Syrian refugees, including military and police defectors. Norwegian General Robert Mood pulled back the 300 unarmed observer force he led in Syria to its headquarters, and cancelled patrols because it was too dangerous. Yet at the same time, European countries in mid June 2012 gave up their proposal to stop and search arms shipments to Syria, ostensibly for “legal reasons.”

Meanwhile, Russia has been providing Syria with arms shipments, above all with attack helicopters. The increase in weapons and ammunition supplied to Syria, which already has an arsenal of 500 planes, and 200 helicopters, has allowed it to be more aggressive in air and artillery assaults. Syria has other deadly weapons, surface -to -surface missiles, a ballistic missile capability, and a chemical program, in existence for forty years, which includes mustard gas, and Sarin and VX nerve agents. The sophisticated chemical weapons facilities, deployed on thousands of bombs and warheads installed on Scud missiles, now pose a threat to the whole Middle East.

It is openly acknowledged that some countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the United States are helping supply Syrian opposition fighters with medical supplies, communications equipment and a variety of weapons, but that supply is limited and they have done little to act aggressively against the regime. Instead, more focus has been on diplomacy. That diplomacy however lacks muscle and candor. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently has expressed concern about Russian aid to Syria. Yet, both the United States and France continue to have business dealings with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms firm, that is supplying the Assad regime with weapons

Is it not time for the international community to realize that the starting point of diplomacy is to bring Bashar al-Assad to justice?

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