“Tell me, how many supporters does Assad actually still have?” I am frequently asked at lectures. Oftentimes, it is intended as a rhetorical question and offers the person asking a stage on which they can share their own theories – or conspiracy theories – on the developments in Syria. Many a time, they will reminisce about a pre-revolutionary Syria, albeit a romanticised version, from which they – due to a lack of knowledge, ignorance or quite consciously – omit that the country already was a rogue state at that time, characterised by arbitrary arrests, torture, oppression and discrimination.
The worst experience was when a self-proclaimed pacifist in Berlin made a point of declaring Assad wasn’t that bad at all. She did not question the tens of thousands of deaths by torture in the past years – an estimated 18.000 in the recently published Amnesty International report – but instead felt vindicated by these deaths: After all, someone “had to do it”. Her logic was that since there were many victims, there had to be many torturers, and therefore, the regime couldn’t be that unpopular.
What shall I say to that? “Even though there are neo-Nazis in Germany to this day, I am pleased the Hitler regime was overthrown in 1945”? Or: “Amongst the war profiteers his supporters became more and more numerous”? Every despot has his entourage. Not to forget those who are by no means fervid followers but see no other option as they fear the rebels and Daesh even more. There are also those who, for years, have been talked into believing “the others” are out to kill them. However, that cannot be used as an argument in support of looking on while mass murders and the displacement of millions take place, or even worse: to defend these acts. In the face of the insulted and insulting comments that emerge throughout this discussion, I am at times even under the impression that Assad might have more followers among left- and right-wing groups in Europe than in Syria.
Even if one only follows the official regime statements, it has become difficult to find something positive in his approach. That is why “safe corridors” emerged as a big issue in the course of the siege of eastern Aleppo. The regime and its allies claimed to provide civilians and rebels safe conduct from the besieged half of the city through these “corridors”. In reality, the inhabitants were not allowed to leave the city at any point. The corridors and consequently the refugees existed solely on Syrian and Russian television.
German TV stations transmitted the images uncritically and thereby disseminated the myth of this purported means of escape while users on social media had long examined the specious staging more closely: A man who, in the Russian video, is seen merely standing around and quite obviously is neither a refugee nor an insurgent, appears as a “rebel” on Syrian television who surrenders most submissively and gratefully appreciates the opportunity to not only lay down his weapons and return to the “fold of the Syrian nation”, but also promptly becomes part of the army.
That guy is who I would nominate as a top candidate for the Golden Raspberry Awards. And the “captives” who star in the video that was released by the regime in May 2016 are perhaps my second choice. The video is set at the time the regime regained control over the prison in Hama following a prisoner revolt. While the supposed inmates – well-fed and clean, an image contradicting other pictures of Syrian prisons – praise Assad in the courtyard, the actual prisoners can be heard chanting “Freedom, freedom, Bashar get out” in the background – so loud, that the moderator urges the gang in the courtyard to roar louder in order to suffocate the chorus of the real inmates. Third place should go to “Syria’s most outraged bystander” who “coincidentally” became the witness of several strikes - even in different roles, at times in uniform, other times as a civilian.
The next time someone asks me how many followers Assad still has, I will simply point to this video: clearly he has not even enough supporters to cast different extras for two short television clips.
Translated from the German by Christine F.G. Kollmar