Yet more about Charlotte Moore, albeit in passing...
In her Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture this week, she described the new three-part BBC Two series A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad as a "must-see" programme. So, being an obedient soul, I obeyed and watched the first episode. And it really is excellent.
The opening programme took us up to 2003, three years after the death of the Don Corleone of the family, Hafez al-Assad, and the assumption of power by his Michael Corleone-like second son Bashar.
Old Hafez, a skull with a moustache, always struck me as a wrong 'un, but I didn't know that "at his military parades, soldiers were forced to kill puppies in front of him" and "female soldiers were made to bite off the heads of snakes". And lest I didn't want to believe that, there was the grainy black-and-white footage to prove it. (And I don't think I'll forget that for a while). He was also the sort of socialist dictator who would spent over a billion dollars creating a family palace.
His eldest son, Bassel (middle of the back row in the photo above), was meant to be his successor. As a clue to his character we were told that he was a champion horse rider but, in 1993, one of his rivals beat him in a competition. Bassel had him arrested and put in prison. Anyhow, he also loved fast cars and died after crashing one in heavy fog.
Who should Hafez chose next? Not his brutal treacherous brother Rifaat, who tried staging a coup against him after he had a heart attack in 1987. Not his preferred choice, his forceful daughter Bushra, because, well, she was a woman. Not the third son Majid, because he was mentally ill. Nor the youngest son Maher, because he was too young and hot-headed. So there was only one choice left - bashful Bashar, the softly lisping ophthalmologist. He was fast-tracked through the army and given a crash course in how to be a dictator.
The series is also closely following his British banker wife Asma, who it's portraying as someone who wanted to be a a princess in a fairy tale and who was delighted when Tony Blair, after 9/11, invited her and her husband to meet HM the Queen.
Old Hafez was the master of 'the hamburger trick'. This involves a hamburger sandwich seller. When the customer takes the bread, he finds that the seller has withdrawn the hamburger and he's eating just bread. The dictator used it on six US presidents, always giving them the hope that he'd be their ally in the Middle East but, at the last minute, not delivering. And we saw Bashar using it on Tony Blair. The British Prime Minister went to Syria, received the full charm of Bashar and private promises of support for the West in the War on Terror as the Iraq War neared. At the final press conference Tony Blair strongly welcomed President Assad's support and President Assad...well, President Assad pulled the rug from under the British PM and said that he didn't support the war at all, leaving Mr Blair looking on in severe bemusement - a remarkable scene.
And this brings me to the most thought-provoking idea in the programme:
Narrator: At this point [the Iraq War], Bashar does something that will change history. He secretly releases Islamic fundamentalists from his prisons, arms them and sends them over the border to fight the Americans. The Muslim prisoners that Bashar released and sent over the border are a major reason that America and Britain get bogged down in Iraq.
Sir John Sawers, head of MI6 2009-2014: There's no doubt that the fundamental security problems arose because extremists sympathetic to Al-Qaeda were fuelled with weapons, ammunition and support from Syria. So the task of stabilising, especially the west and north of Iraq, became vastly more difficult because of the actions of the Syrian regime.
The West usually gets the blame for the massive destabilisation of the region and the worldwide Islamist terrorism that followed the Iraq War, but what if it wasn't the West that made the big difference but Bashar al-Assad? If he hadn't released and armed those jihadists and sent them into Iraq and caused so much chaos, would the world be a very different place now? (There's a counterfactual for you!). Of course, in a few years' time, the Muslim fundamentalists that Bashar released would cross the border back into Syria.and try to set up an Islamic State there. But they are now (almost) gone and he's still there.