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Assad's 'always beautiful' Syria ads can't disguise the ugly truth

The Syrian president and his PR cronies can pretend its 'business as usual' in Syria, but nobody should be fooled

The head of a psychiatric ward was making his routine rounds to the various patients on his floor, when he came upon a group of them parading around on imagined motorbikes, making engine sounds. The doctor was surprised to see one of the patients sitting on the side smoking a cigarette with no signs of lunacy. 

Happy at this discovery, the doctors addressed the man and informed him that he had been cured and that there was no reason for him to stay incarcerated. He could come with them to the administration where he would be released.

The Assad regime has completely lost touch with political realism both domestically and abroad

The patient, happy to hear of his imminent freedom, looked at the doctor, turned the ignition on his fictional bike and answered: “Sure thing, why don’t you jump on I will drive us there.”

This anecdote sum ups Bashar al-Assad’s approach to the civil war, which has engulfed Syria for the past five years. Recently, two particular events have highlighted how the Assad regime has completely lost touch with political realism both domestically and abroad.

In a desperate and perhaps tactless initiative, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism released a campaign to promote tourism and to show how, despite its various challenges, Syria will continue to attract tourists from around the globe. 

Nearly all of the images and venues that the campaign promoted were exclusively of Syrian coastal areas which lie in the centre of the Alawite enclave that remains relatively safe from the troubles around it.   

The “Syria Always Beautiful” ads, which flooded social media websites, come at a time when all the countries on the Mediterranean, like Syria, enter the low tourism season of autumn.

One is left pondering why the regime would release such a campaign knowing quite well that more than 10 million of its people have been turned into refugees either internally or across the globe and that no sane mortal would ever choose Syria to be their vacation destination.

Judging from the video promotion however, the message that Assad wants to send is clear: despite at least 400,000 dead Syrians and more than 80 percent of the country in a shambles, the Alawite area as well as Damascus, the seat of power, are still standing.

The Syrian ministry of tourism intentionally ignored the fact that both historic cities of Aleppo and Palmyra have both been virtually razed either by the regime or by the equally barbaric Islamic State.

This desperate attempt by the regime to project a “business as usual“ demeanour is hard to sustain. Assad’s control of his country has greatly diminished and as he has been sidelines by his Russian allies and pro-Iranian groups fighting a so-called "war on terror" on his behalf.

A new low

This domestic failure has also been extended to Assad’s ability to play a regional role, especially across the border in Lebanon which up until 2005, the date of his army’s withdrawal, was a Syrian protectorate.

Almost 65km from the Syrian coast, the Lebanese city of Tripoli dealt Assad a major political blow earlier this month when two of his top security officers were indicted for the 2013 bombing of the Al-Taqwa and Al-Salam mosques. 

Targeting a place of worship across foreign lands is still a new low even for Assad

The northern city of Tripoli, with its clear Sunni majority, had risen up in support of the Syrian revolution which prompted a series of sectarian clashes between residents in the city’s Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen and supporters of the uprisings.

The climax of the fighting occurred on 23 August 2013, when separate explosions targeted two Sunni mosques as worshippers were leaving the Friday prayer service, killing at least 40 and injuring hundreds of civilians.

Naturally, the blame for this heinous crime was directed at the Assad regime that aimed to widen the gap even further between the bickering sects in the city.

Despite the fact that Tripoli is a hotbed of anti-Assad activity, however, targeting a place of worship in a foreign land was still a new low even for Assad.

Politically unrealistic as it may seem, many Lebanese have demanded the extradition of both these Syrian officers to stand trial in Lebanon or, alternatively, to sever Lebanese-Syrian diplomatic relations by recalling the Lebanese mission in Syria and proclaiming the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon persona non grata.

Wake up call

Since 1976, when the Syrian army entered Lebanon, most of the crimes that bear the marks of the Syrian regime have been swept under the rug. Not once have Lebanese judicial authorities officially implicated a Syrian official with a political crime perpetrated on Lebanese soil.

This, however, changed in 2012 with the arrest and prosecution of former minister Michael Samaha who, under orders from Assad, was scheming to target Christian and Muslim places of worship with the intention of instigating civil strife.

Disregarding the judicial aspect of both cases and how far the Lebanese authorities will pursue the matter, these examples have been a harsh wake-up call to Assad that Lebanon as well as over 80 percent of Syria are outside his reach.

Furthermore, Assad needs to realise that Hezbollah is not going to allow him to use the group for cover - especially when it pertains to the Lebanese Sunni community, and more so when these actions could trigger a full-scale sectarian war.

The murder of both Lebanese and Syrians by Assad and his associates cannot be polished away by a video extolling the natural beauty of Syria, nor by merely dismissing these allegations as conspiratorial and false.

Assad’s decision to remain ostensibly silent at times should not lead one to imply that he is the sanest one in the room, nor should the international community actually work with him because he seems, for short lapses, to have recovered from his political dementia.

Assad’s true nature should always be kept in mind so as to avoid partaking in the joyride that he and other dictators in the region have been enjoying for years on end.

- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975” and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad shares iftar dinner with Syrian soldiers on 26 June 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.