Since the very beginning of the Arab uprisings earlier this year, the leaders of dictatorial governments at the centre of the storms across the region have raised the spectre of "Islamists" in the struggle to stay in power. "We're the best you're going to get," is the message. Initially, this was also the mantra of some governments in the West, fearful that after years of supporting dictators in the name of "stability", a euphemism for "we can't let politically adroit Muslims take control", Western governments and their allies found themselves faced with the possibility of having to deal with or worse, actually back, Muslim Brotherhood-led regimes. After years of touting democratic values around the Middle East, the awful thought dawned on Washington and London that the rejection of the democratic will of the Palestinians in 2006 which brought Hamas to power couldn't be repeated in Tunisia, Egypt and… Well, Libya is another matter; it has oil, so NATO bombers were wheeled out to "protect civilians".
Syria is another awkward case; no oil or other minerals worth committing the lives of NATO troops to defend, and no real friend in President Basher Al-Assad, a dictator marginally more benign than his late father but a dictator nonetheless. Calls for Western Libya-style intervention have so far been ignored, despite the slaughter of thousands of anti-regime protestors calling for free and fair democratic elections. Why is this so? Articles in the right-wing Telegraph group newspapers over the past few days give us a clue as to why the West remains extremely reluctant to "protect civilians" being killed by the government in Syria in stark contrast to the way NATO rushed to bomb the Gaddafi regime in Libya into submission.
The articles have been written by arguably the most aggressively anti-Muslim and anti-Islamist journalist writing in Britain today. Andrew Gilligan was granted what is trumpeted as Bashar Al-Assad's "first interview with a Western journalist since Syria's seven-month uprising began"; an "exclusive interview", in fact. That alone should raise some eyebrows; what on earth is Assad doing, giving such a scoop to a right-wing pro-Israel newspaper group by speaking to such an anti-Muslim hack?
Scrutinise Gilligan's articles – go on, force yourself – and there it is, buried deep in the text: "He [Bashar Al-Assad] described the uprising as a 'struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism [secularism]', adding: 'We've been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them.'" Clearly, this is a woeful attempt to misrepresent the Syrian opposition which today includes all forces across the political divide. It is the familiar refrain from earlier in the Arab Spring which has been discredited everywhere apart from Israel, with even the US State Department acknowledging that it is more than likely going to have to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in some capacity in Egypt; it is also the reason why Israel, alone among with the Westernised democracies, has opposed freedom and democracy for its Arab neighbours. The dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad may not be ideal, but the alternative is much worse. That's the line of thinking in Tel Aviv, which maintains an uneasy unofficial peace with Syria even though Israel occupies the Syrian Golan Heights. It suits both countries to maintain the status quo. Assad can posture as the Arab hard man and Israel can use him as the regional bogey in bed with Iran in order to squeeze yet more military aid out of hard-pressed American taxpayers. In the strange world of Middle East diplomacy, Israel's President Shimon Peres has called for new talks with Damascus "without preconditions". According to Haaretz newspaper, he refused to elaborate on this. The Palestinians, however, can teach Assad a thing or two about the futility of talks with Israel.
Gilligan comes across slightly awestruck at Assad's apparent ordinariness. He was not the kind of Arab dictator you expect to meet, in difficult circumstances surrounded by "officials, flunkies and state TV cameras". He has a "modest lifestyle" in a "normal – albeit guarded – street". Assad, claims Gilligan, "was quite different" to other Arab leaders. So much so, that Gilligan was able to call him a "nerd" and the president "laughed out loud".
Syria, said Gilligan, is "neither religiously nor ethnically homogeneous" and minorities feel threatened that reform may be allowed to go unchecked: "On Thursday night, the beginning of the Muslim weekend, Damascus's Old City was heaving with people having a good time. Men and women were mixing freely. Alcohol was widely available. A pair of Christian Orthodox priests, in their long cassocks, walked through the crowded alleys, and small Christian shrines were tucked away in the corners. The regime is successfully pushing the message that all this is at risk. 'I don't like Assad, but I am worried that what follows could be worse,' said one of the partygoers." It looks as if Gilligan agrees; he has no qualms about "successfully pushing" the right of the majority in Britain to impose its will on minorities, especially Muslims, but he is reluctant to comment on the rule of the Sunni majority in Syria by a secular minority. The sub-text is clear; tolerance, respect for others and "people having a good time" is under threat if we allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take power in open elections. Better have limited reform under a president who wears jeans, speaks "perfect" English and – hey, he's one of us! – "lived for two years in London".
The question has to be asked, therefore, if the Arab Spring has run its course in Western eyes. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said military action in Syria is "out of the question" and insists that the Alliance "has no intention [to intervene] whatsoever". If that is the case, with no prospect of a NATO-imposed safe zone in Syria to protect civilians from the excesses of Assad's troops, we must prepare ourselves for the international rehabilitation of the Syrian president. He's bad, but not that bad seems to be the early message conveyed by Gilligan in the Telegraph, a media organ that is as unlikely to publish anything remotely unacceptable to Israel as it is to publish anything remotely agreeable about the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, therefore, may well be the one Arab dictator that the West cannot afford to lose; the repercussions from Israel and the pro-Israel lobby would be far too much for Western politicians to bear.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.