What makes Syria different?

By Melanie Phillips, May 6, 2011

It is hard to imagine a more graphic demonstration of the lamentable failure to understand the Arab world by Britain and the west than its response to the "Arab Spring".

Just about every single thing it is possible to have got wrong, it has got wrong. And nowhere has this been more obvious than in its response to the atrocities in Syria.

Consider: western troops are currently deployed in Libya, ostensibly to protect protesters from attack by Colonel Gaddafi's tyrannical regime. Very heartwarming. Only trouble is, the West hasn't responded in the same way when other innocent populations have been mown down by brutal regimes - the Sudan comes particularly to mind.

And now there's Syria, where so far some 500 people, at least, have been killed in the brutal suppression of protests against the regime of President Assad. Yet, while the UK and US are trying to kill Gaddafi and have so far killed his son and grandchildren in the attempt –- even though the UN resolution permits them solely to take action to protect Libyan civilians - the UK and US are making no attempt to kill Assad, nor even to send any troops to Syria.

So what's the explanation for the inconsistency? It would seem to be a combination of a gross misreading of the Arab uprisings, opportunistic political posturing and a bone-headed attachment to the demonstrably bankrupt doctrine of realpolitik.

The West views all Arab protesters as favouring democracy

From the start of the Arab revolts, there was an assumption in the West that the protesters were all in favour of democracy. That is because the West arrogantly persists in viewing the rest of the world through the prism of its own cultural assumptions. Accordingly, it believes that if people are rising up against tyrannical oppression, they must inevitably be in favour of freedom and democracy.

But the protesters do not all march under the same banner. Liberal students may want to see the back of Egypt's Mubarak or Libya's Gaddafi but so do the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit with a very different end in mind.

And so the dismal prospect looms that, in their arrogance and ignorance, Britain, America and the EU will end up helping replace autocratic Arab tyrannies in Egypt and Libya - horrible regimes which were nevertheless reasonably helpful to the west - by totalitarian Islamic tyrannies, regimes whose aim is to destroy the West.

Into this utterly incoherent mess that passes for foreign policy has come the uprising in Syria and its brutal repression by the regime of President Assad. Yet here the protesters' cause is not being championed like that of the Egyptians or the Libyans, but is largely ignored by western media and politicians.

So why the difference? Because, for years, the UK and US have told themselves that Assad represents their one great hope for leverage in the Middle East. The fact that he is in the pocket of Tehran apparently makes him not a threat but an opportunity. Year after year, we have been told that, at any moment, western diplomatic genius will succeed in peeling him away from Iran. He is a reformer; he is a potential reformer; he is about to turn into a potential reformer any minute now.

Yet Syria remains what it has been for so many years -not just a tyranny, but a mortal enemy of life and liberty, Israel and the west. It is an active accomplice to the genocidal regime in Tehran, engages in terrorist attacks against the West and has even tried to make a nuclear bomb to that end.

If there was one Middle Eastern tyrant whose toppling would inestimably benefit the world, it is Assad. Yet he is the one whose brutality the West chooses to skip lightly over, while working itself into a ferment of indignation over Mubarak or Gaddafi.

One very salient reason is that the western media spun the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings as a "tide of history" democratic moment, a bandwagon upon which opportunistic western politicians thought they could jump to their electoral advantage.

So why is the media so indifferent to the plight of the Syrian protesters? One can come up with disobliging theories that western journalists will only ever support the enemies of the West, while regarding any regimes helpful to the West as axiomatically to be despised. But maybe there's a simpler reason why they don't report atrocities in Syria. It doesn't let them in. Through such banal contingencies is history made.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist.

Last updated: 1:40pm, May 6 2011