It may rank as one of the most ill-timed feature articles ever published. Peel away the gobs of glamor lingo, and Vogue Magazine's recent article lauding Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, is little more than haut couture propaganda.
Vogue described Mrs. Assad as "young and very chic -- the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," who "is on a mission ... to put a modern face on her husband's regime."
But prose lipstick and cosmetic patois cannot camouflage Syria's blood-splattered legacy and its ongoing horror. Just as the Vogue article appeared in late February, Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution began to shake Mr. and Mrs. Assad's regime. Two months later, Syria continues to quake. The regime has killed around 200 demonstrators since the end of February, though no one knows for sure, since Assad's government has restricted access within the country.
Vogue kowtowing to Asma? Swank, baby. The BBC interviewing anti-regime protestors? Suddenly the Vogue mask drops and the Assad regime's hard face appears.
That hard face has quite a history. Troublemaking in Lebanon, common cause with Iran and relentless war with Israel are part of that history. But the Assads' longest-running war has been against the Syrian people. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, ordered the February 1982 massacre in the city of Hama. Regime security forces murdered between 7,000 and 20,000 people; Syrians I know claim that one day the mass graves will be excavated and the 20,000 figure will be ratified.
Bashar took charge in 2,000, after Hafez died. He was a fresh face with a bit of style. But like father, like son, the secret police remained employed and the jails remained filled. Like father, like son, the body count, inside and outside Syria, continued to mount. A U.N. investigation of the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri found evidence of Syrian involvement. Former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam later told the German magazine Der Speigel, "I am convinced that the order (to kill Hariri) came from (Bashar) Assad."
Under Bashar, Syria continues to arm Shia Hezbollah and Sunni Hamas. Hezbollah gives Assad a way to exert backdoor control over Lebanon. With Hezbollah and Hamas as allies, together Syria and Iran wage a war of political and economic attrition against Israel.
Bashar, like Hafez, wears the hard face well. Despite secret police intimidation and the mass deployment of security forces, however, demonstrations in Syria have not subsided. Still, 200 killed in 2011 isn't 1982's slaughter of 20,000. What gives?
Videos of the protests, taken by Syrian activists, are cropping up on the Internet. New media may have given Bashar's regime pause. Bashar is clearly not repeating Moammar Gadhafi's mistake of threatening the mass murder of dissidents. Bashar claims he will lift Syria's state of emergency. It has been in effect since 1963 -- again, like father, like son.
Bashar, however, balances the carrot with a stick. In exchange for ending the permanent emergency, he says demonstrators must cease and desist. He has almost accused Israel and U.S. of stirring the unrest.
StrategyPage.com recently reported that "Iran is apparently helping out, with security experts who have recent practice in suppressing public demonstrations ..." StrategyPage indicated the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah gunmen provide Syria with "some dependable muscle against anti-Assad crowds."
Bashar al-Assad is likely pursuing a strategy of quiet strangulation instead of massacre -- so here the son differs from father in method, though not in goal. He will buy time to strangle his people by threatening to ignite civil war in Lebanon or war against Israel -- two of his father's favorite tactics.
Meanwhile, Vogue tells us Asma recently visited Paris "to discuss her alliance" with the Louvre Museum. A museum? Her husband's vicious regime ought to be tossed into the dustbin of history.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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