How the Assads won the West over – By Michael Young
As the regime of President Bashar Assad pursues its campaign of repression against its own population, how do those Western officials who once saw Syria as a serious partner in the Middle East feel?
The Assads, father and son, benefited from a profound misunderstanding of the nature of their leadership. None of Damascus’ many interlocutors ever doubted that they were dealing with a fetid dictatorship, but they pursued their flirtations anyway. Somehow, they repeatedly persuaded themselves that Syria was a key to unlocking closed regional doors. That the doors usually stayed closed failed to discourage further advances.
Bashar Assad cheerfully exploited this obstinacy, as he did the supremely idiotic insight that someone who doesn’t look, dress and talk like a thug cannot possibly be a thug. Whatever his deeper proclivities, Bashar has internalized a system that is, essentially, a vast criminal enterprise, one that has entirely absorbed him.
What are some of the misperceptions that have sustained Syria’s autocrats for so long? The most resilient was that Syria under the Assads was reformable. The masks are down, so that when the Syrian president brings up his purported reform program these days, he is greeted with contempt. But for more than a decade the unqualified worthlessness of this proposition was plain to those bothering to look.
There is no great mystery in the way Syria is run. True reform in the country would mean undermining the delicately balanced structure that Hafez Assad set up to protect his rule, and that of his family. Like any good architectural work, Hafez built institutions of governance and subjugation propped up by neutralizing contrary forces. Security bodies and military units proliferated, but also cancelled each other out; governments were eternal, but were counter-balanced by the Baath Party, while both were dominated by the security services, themselves arbitrated by the president. The political arrangement rested on Alawite solidarity and advancement, but Sunnis were integrated into it, even as they were denied substantial authority. The regime was allegedly secular, but as of the mid-1980s it expanded the numbers of schools and mosques to earn religious legitimacy (no doubt facilitating infiltration of Islamist groups as well). And so on.
Even Hafez Assad himself occasionally had trouble maneuvering such a bulky machine. Bashar, less skillful an operator, could only play at the margins. He opened Syria up to foreign banks and investment. But this primarily benefited the ruling clique, above all the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who expanded his stake in the Syrian economy, becoming a conduit for major transactions. You could now sit at trendy new sidewalk cafes in Damascus, Assad’s promoters crowed. But most Syrians couldn’t afford a latte, and this veneer of modernism was somehow confused with political openness.
The inability to reform impacted on many fronts. Much has been made of Hafez Assad’s willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel during the 1990s. Yes, the Syrians appeared genuinely willing to go quite far, while the Israelis backtracked at the Shepherdstown talks in December 1999, refusing to return the entire area of the Golan Heights to Syria’s sovereignty. However, it was never clear how the Syrian order would have adjusted to a settlement. This would have imposed a substantial overhaul and demobilization of the military and security edifice, shaking the very foundations of Assad rule. It seems apparent that Bashar Assad, despite welcoming a process of negotiations with Israel, knew that he did not have the latitude that his father enjoyed to manage the aftermath of a successful outcome.
If Bashar couldn’t reform domestically and had limited room to conclude a peace settlement with Israel, Syria during most of the past 10 years nevertheless took on the role of an ardent spoiler. In Iraq after 2003, on the Palestinian-Israeli track after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, and in Lebanon after the Syrian pullout of 2005, Damascus was a compulsive fire-starter. But here, too, the behavior of the Assads generated a new misunderstanding: If Syria could start fires, then presumably it could also help extinguish them.
Except for one thing. Under Bashar Assad, Syria was a second-rate Arab power. There was no “peace process” to lend it regional relevance; Assad soon lost Lebanon; and the Bush administration’s objectives in Iraq ran against those of Syria, so engagement became futile. Damascus could siphon jihadists into Iraq; it could, with Iran, turn Hamas against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization; and it could cooperate with Hezbollah to reverse the shaky independence that Lebanon gained in 2005.
But what Assad could not do was surrender any of the cards he had accumulated. By doing so, Syria would have lost its leverage, with little to compensate for this. The Americans and Europeans did begin returning to Damascus to ask Assad to facilitate solutions all around him. The French mainly pleaded on behalf of Lebanon; the Americans requested help to break the Palestinian deadlock. President Barack Obama followed with a promise of “engagement.”
And Assad budged on not a single request of the foreign envoys. He deduced, quite reasonably, that if he did so, no one would knock at his door any more. Even Arab foes were coming around. Saudi Arabia reconciled with Assad, despite his alliance with Iran, and compelled its recalcitrant Lebanese allies to do the same. But at some stage, all shell games backfire. By never delivering, Assad was seen increasingly as a time-waster, and a liar to boot.
Today, everyone from French President Nicholas Sarkozy to Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, friends of Bashar past, as well as Barack Obama, realize whom they were pampering. They have recoiled in disgust. But for too long they eagerly bought into Bashar Assad’s scam, and people are still dying because of their error.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.