Six years ago I was arrested in Damascus. This was long before the Arab Spring and the current conflict, of course. An innocent attempt to take a photo of the hills overlooking the Syrian capital ended with a hand on the shoulder, and a visit to some government security building.
President Assad looked sternly down at me from the wall as I was searched, questioned and finally released. Our tour guide from Aleppo was crest-fallen. His week-long attempt to show us how tolerant and peaceful Syrian society was had been scuppered by a single act of heavy-handedness.
I only resurrect this psychological war wound to show that I’m no fan of Mr Assad and his secret police. Not before we went, and certainly not after.
Nevertheless, not all of what the tour showed us was undermined by that hiccup. We found, as we crossed the country, a remarkable degree of religious and cultural toleration. Religious and ethnic diversity was fine, just as long as one bowed to the man at the top.
The West has been extraordinarily partial in its rendering of the struggle between Assad and his enemies. I find least compelling of all the claim that Assad is killing his own people.
Isn’t this what happens in a civil war ? Isn’t this what Charles I did, and Oliver Cromwell ? Isn’t it what the Free Syrian Army is doing? And how much is a struggle for freedom actually a struggle for power?
Doubtless the minority Alawite regime will give way at some point in the near future, and the Sunni majority will seize power. But if we are anticipating a new dawn of tolerance in Syria, let alone a western-style democracy, we may find ourselves disappointed.
Minority regimes are, on the whole, rather more protective of difference than governments dominated by a majority sect. Count the numbers of Christians and Jews in Iraq today, compared to 2003. And count the numbers of Armenians and Alawites and Druze in Syria already beginning to think about life somewhere else. But I may be wrong, of course. Never ask a historian if you want predictions.
* Dr Chris Upton is Senior Lecturer in History at Newman University College in Birmingham.