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Assad’s Latest Lie: “The Last Bastion of Secularism” | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes is seen on the facade of the police academy in Aleppo, after it was captured by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013. (Reuters/Mahmoud Hassano)

During his interview with the British Sunday Times, embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad further attempted to intimidate the Arabs and stir their emotions. He claimed they have two options, either his regime or Al-Qaeda. He then attempted to exploit Western public opinion by saying, “If you worry about Syria in that sense, you have to worry about the Middle East because we are the last bastion of secularism in the region. If you worry about the Middle East, the whole world should be worried about its stability.” So now Assad is claiming to be the leader of a secular regime!

Intimidating the Arabs and the West by warning that Al-Qaeda is the alternative to his regime has been the backbone of Assad’s propaganda strategy ever since the outbreak of the Syrian popular revolution. His political and media discourse has focused on this threat because he knows the West supports popular movements such as those in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, but strongly opposes extremist religious groups such as those in Afghanistan.

Assad has described his regime as secular in an attempt to embellish its image. In reality, the Assad regime has nothing to do with secularism. It is a fascist, oppressive, security and military dominated system. Bashar inherited it from his father, who previously established it following a military coup forty years ago. The Assad regime most resembles that of North Korea, and just because its leader does not adopt a religious discourse does not mean it is secular.

On the contrary, Bashar Assad follows an abhorrent policy of sectarianism, whereby positions and benefits are exclusively granted to those close to him from the Alawite sect. Secularism—as an expansion of liberal thought—is based on respecting freedoms. Syria, however, is ruled by a strict culture of security. Until recently, the regime arrested citizens if they were discovered to own fax machines, which had to be licensed under state approval! Similar strict measures apply to other details of everyday life, from opening shops to making financial transactions.

Syria has never been a secular country and its regime has never been liberal, regardless of the portrayed elegance of Assad’s wife, Asma. Regimes cannot be described on their outward appearance alone, otherwise we would conclude that Cuba is an Islamic state because of President Castro’s long, thick beard!

Tunisia was formerly a security regime and Libya, during Gaddafi’s reign, was like modern-day Syria under the Assad family. Neither of these regimes were religious, security was the fundamental element; the citizens complained of suppression and of living under a police siege.

There is not a single Arab country with a ruling system that can be described as secular, or an Arab society than can be described as liberal. Even Lebanon, which is relatively moderate by Arab standards, is ruled by a sectarian quota of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Druze.

As for the besieged Assad, he knows that since the beginning of the Syrian revolution he has pushed the opposition towards the extremists. He knows that if he can convince the world that the opposition groups are affiliates of Al-Qaeda then he may be able to turn public opinion, not only in the West but in the Arab world as well. Half of Assad’s speech during the Sunday Times interview was directed towards Western public opinion, trying to portray himself as a key player in the fight against Islamic extremism. However, in reality, Assad is a key supporter of extremist groups. He is a supporter of the radical Shiite regime in Iran, and the extremist Hezbollah party. He also has ties with extremist Sunni organizations such as Fatah Al-Islam, which fought against Hariri’s government in Lebanon, as well as Al-Qaeda movements in Iraq, which have wreaked death and destruction there.

We cannot overlook the convergence of several contradictions in the region, and although this may seem strange at first, the reasons are clear. Iran, with its hardline Shiite regime, supports Al-Qaeda, an extremist Sunni organization, despite the historical enmity among the fanatics of both sects, because they agree on the same goals. In fact, most veteran Al-Qaeda leaders are currently in Iran. Seif Al-Adel has been living there since the 1990s. Likewise, Osama Bin Laden’s children took refuge in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan, and did not leave until three years ago.

Although he is not overtly religious, Syria’s president is the main supporter of jihadi groups in the region like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah Al-Islam, almost all extremist groups in Iraq, and of course Hezbollah.

Assad today is trying to convince the West that he is secular and liberal, and that he is fighting Islamic extremism. Those who work in the field of politics, however, know the Assad regime very well. They know it is nothing more than an extension of the Iranian regime. Hafez Assad adopted the cause of Arab Ba’athists in order to justify his seizure of power and consecrate his sectarian rule. Following on from him, his son has sought the company of numerous bearded men from Supreme Leader Khamenei to Hassan Nasrallah. He has even held Islamic jihad conferences in Damascus.

Now, two years after the Syrian revolution erupted, Assad now speaks of secularism as if he advocates it.