Bashar falls back on father's brutal methods

A pro-Syrian regime protester holds a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad  in Damascus, Syria, on 20 January 2012 The authorities organise regular rallies in support of President Bashar al-Assad

Someone has pinned a poster up at the foreign passports window at the Syrian border post with Lebanon. It shows a dove of peace, surrounded by guns, each labelled with the name of a foreign news broadcaster - including the BBC.

The dove is surrounded, and under fire. But the bullets are bouncing off its feathers, which are the colour of the Syrian flag - white, red, green and black.

As usual, I have had nothing but courtesy since I arrived in Syria, even though the official line here, set by President Bashar al-Assad, is that its troubles are caused by a foreign conspiracy aided and abetted by the international media.

The other day the BBC went on a government trip to Deraa, the town where the uprising started in March last year.

We managed to leave our escort of secret policemen to have a quick talk with a group of defiant young men.

They said they lived in a street of martyrs, where 18 had been killed in the last 10 months. As we left them they were chanting "Bashar, we want to hang you".

'Under strain'

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About half an hour later, back with the minders from the Ministry of Information, a rumour started circulating that the BBC had an undercover team in Deraa, as well as us, because they had been seen meeting protesters.

It was nonsense of course, but the first assumption was that it was true - yet more proof of the conspiracy.

When the bus got back to Damascus I went to the ministry.

Some building work was going on in the entrance hall, which is dominated by a gigantic bust of Bashar's father Hafez, who was the first Assad president.

Hafez al-Assad was ruthless. He dealt with attempted revolts by crushing them, if necessary sending in the tanks.

He ended more than 20 years of coups after he seized power in 1970 and by the time he died in 2000, no-one could challenge his wish to pass the presidency on to his son.

The bust of Hafez al-Assad at the ministry is covered in dust. Somehow I imagine its prudent employees would have kept it shiny in his day.

The system he built is now under colossal strain.

Syria is in its worst crisis since independence in 1946. In his time of trouble Bashar has fallen back on his father's methods, but they don't work in quite the same way in the modern world.

'Hypocrisy'

When the first President Assad eliminated a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 by sending in the army and killing at least 10,000 people, no-one was putting videos on YouTube as it happened.

Jeremy Bowen met pro-Assad supporters at a demo in Damascus

The deed was done by the time the details were known.

The wiring of the world for instant communication has made it more transparent.

Authoritarian leaders in the 21st century can still get away with a lot. But only if they have the right friends - and at the moment Bashar al-Assad does not.

I had dinner the other night with a senior official I've known for a few years.

He is a charming, educated man, who argues that President Assad is not being given the chance by the world's big powers to reform the regime.

He said the West was applying its usual double standards to what was happening here. We met on the day that David Cameron called President Assad a "wretched tyrant".

'Decade of chances'

Syria deaths

  • More than 5,000 civilians killed since March 2011, says the UN
  • More than 400 killed since start of Arab League mission on 26 December 2011
  • UN denied access to Syria
  • Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrians who have fled
  • Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
  • Tally does not include serving members of the security forces

Source: UN's OHCHR

Hypocrisy, said my contact. Why doesn't Britain speak out in the same way when civilians are killed in Bahrain? The reason, he said, was that it didn't want to offend its Saudi allies and their friends in Bahrain's ruling family.

The West, he said, should realise that only President Assad can save Syria from sectarian civil war.

But there are plenty of people here in Syria who believe that the president had a decade of chances to reform, and he chose not to take them.

They think that in Zabatani, a small town half an hour's drive from the presidential palace in Damascus.

Armed rebels there have forced a ceasefire on the regime, and for now at least the protesters control the town.

When I stood with them on a bitterly cold evening in the town's main square as they celebrated, I could hardly believe what I was seeing, so close to Damascus.

President Assad's forces are still strong, but it might already be too late for him to discard his father's rule book. It isn't working any more.

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