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The Truth About Syria
By Barry Rubin
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2007 Barry Rubin
All rights reserved.
WHY SYRIA MATTERS
"It is my pleasure to meet with you in the new Middle East," said Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a speech to the Syrian Journalists' Union on August 15, 2006. But Bashar's new Middle East was neither the one hoped for by many since Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's 1991 defeat in Kuwait nor expected when Bashar himself ascended the throne in 2000. Actually, it was not even new at all but rather a reversion, often in remarkable detail, to the Middle East of the 1950s through the 1980s. The Arab world, now accompanied by Iran, was reembracing an era that had been an unmitigated disaster for itself and extolling ideas and strategies that had repeatedly led to catastrophes ranging from military defeats to massive waste of resources.
No Arab state has had more to do with this important and tragic turn-about than does Syria, which indeed could be called the main architect and beneficiary of this march backward. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Arab states wanted quiet; Iraq needed peace to rebuild itself. Even Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, pressed by sanctions and frightened by the fate of Iraq's Saddam, was on his good behavior. Only Syria remained as a source of instability and radicalism.
Thus, a small state with a modest economy became the fulcrum on which the Middle East shifted and which, in turn, shook the globe. Indeed, Bashar's version of the new Middle East may well persist for an entire generation. Does this make Bashar a fool or a genius? That cannot be determined directly. What can be said is that his policy is good for the regime, simultaneously brilliant and disastrous for Syria, and just plain disastrous for many others.
To understand Syria's special role in the region, it is wise to heed the important insight of a Lebanese American scholar, Fouad Ajami: "Syria's main asset, in contrast to Egypt's preeminence and Saudi wealth, is its capacity for mischief." In the final analysis, Bashar's mischief is in the service of regime maintenance, the all-encompassing cause and goal behind the behavior of the Syrian government. Demagoguery, not the delivery of material benefits, is the basis of its power.
Why have those who govern Syria followed such a pattern for more than six decades under almost a dozen different regimes? The answer: Precisely because the country is a weak one in many respects. Aside from lacking Egypt's power and Saudi Arabia's money, it also falls short on internal coherence due to its diverse population and minority-dominated regime. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein used repression, ideology, and foreign adventures to hold together a system dominated by Sunni Arab Muslims, who made up only one-fifth of the population. In Syria, even more intense measures were needed to sustain a regime that is dominated by the small, non-Muslim Alawite community, only half as large proportionately as the group that formed the basis of its Iraqi counterpart.
To survive, then, the regime needs transcendent slogans and passionate external conflicts that help make its problems disappear. Arabism and, in more recent years, Islamism are its solution. In this light, Syria's rulers can claim to be not a rather inept, corrupt dictatorship but the rightful leaders of all Arabs and the champions of all Muslims. Their battle cries are used very effectively to justify oppression at home and aggression abroad. No other country in the world throws around the word "imperialism" more in describing foreign adversaries, and yet no other state on the globe follows a more classical imperialist policy.
In broad terms, this approach of blaming faults on foreigners to protect dictatorships at home is followed by most, if not all, Arab governments, but Syria offers the purest example of the system. As for the consequences, two basic principles are useful to keep in mind:
1. It often seems as if the worse Syria behaves, the better its regime does. Syrian leaders do not accept the Western view that moderation, compromise, an open economy, and peace are always better. When Syria acts radical, up to a point of course, it maximizes its main asset—causing trouble—which cancels out all its other weaknesses. As a dictatorship, militancy provides an excuse for tight controls and domestic popularity through its demagoguery.
2. Success for the regime and state means disaster for the people, society, and economy. The regime prospers by keeping Syrians believing that their top priority should be the battle against America and Israel, not freedom and prosperity. External threats are used to justify internal repression. The state's control over the economy means lower living standards for most while simultaneously preserving a rich ruling elite with plenty of money to give to its supporters. Imprisoning or intimidating liberal critics means domestic stability but without human rights.
Nevertheless, the regime has survived, its foreign maneuvers have worked well much of the time, and Syrian control over Lebanon has been a money-maker as well as a source of regional influence. But what does all of this avail Syria compared to what an emphasis on peace and development might have achieved? Syria's pattern might be called one of brilliantly successful disasters. The policy works in the sense that the regime survives and the public perceives it as successful. But objectively the society and economy are damaged, freedom is restricted, and resources are wasted. Unfortunately, this pattern is thoroughly typical of Arab politics.
Syria, then, is both a most revealing test case for the failure of change in Middle East politics and a key actor—though there is plenty of blame to go around—in making things go so wrong for the Arab world. If Damascus had moved from the radical to the moderate camp during the 1990s or under Bashar's guidance, it would have decisively shifted the balance to making possible a breakthrough toward a more peaceful and progressive Middle East. Syria's participation in the Gulf War coalition of 1991, its willingness to negotiate with Israel, its severe economic and social stagnation, and its strategic vulnerability, all topped off by the coming to power of a new generation of leaders, provoked expectations that it would undergo dramatic change.
It is a Western, not an Arab, idea that the populace's desperation at their countries' difficult plight would make Hafiz al-Assad, Syria's president between 1971 and his death in 2000—and Saddam, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) head Yasir Arafat, or other Arab and Iranian leaders—move toward compromise and moderation. But the rulers themselves reasoned in the exact opposite way: Faced with pressure to change, they became more demanding.
Often, at least up to a point, this strategy works. The West has offered Syria, for example, more concessions in an attempt to encourage reforms, ensure profitable trade, buy peace, and buy off terrorism. Of course, the West is acting in its own interests, but what is most important is that these interests include solving the issues that have caused conflict, building understanding and confidence, and proving their good intentions toward the peoples of the Middle East.
Yet to the dictatorial regimes, this behavior seems not the result of generosity or proffered friendship but rather Western fear of their power and an imperialist desire to control the Arabs and Muslims. Frequently, too, it is seen as a tribute to their superior tactics, which fool or outmaneuver their adversaries. This perception encourages continued intransigence in hope of reaping still more benefits. Eventually, this process has destroyed any possibility of moderation, though not always Western illusions.
Here are two examples of such thinking. In 1986, at a moment of great weakness for Syria and the Arabs, Hafiz told the British ambassador to Syria, "If I were prime minister of Israel with its present military superiority and the support of the world's number-one power, I would not make a single concession."
Yet at that time and thereafter, the United States was working hard to bring the PLO into a negotiated agreement that would make it head of a state. And a few years later, when in even a stronger position, Israel negotiated with the PLO and made massive concessions because it wanted peace. The intention was to solve the conflict by finding some mutually acceptable compromise solution. The other side, however, interpreted such actions as simultaneously a trick of Israel and America that should be rejected as well as a sign of weakness that should be exploited.
Precisely twenty years after his father Hafiz's remark, Bashar made his most important speech to date at the journalists' conference on August 15, 2006. Only power and violence, he argued, forces the other side to make concessions, negotiate, or even pay attention to the issue. Speaking about the international reaction just after the Israel-Hizballah war, he said, "The world does not care about our interests, feelings and rights except when we are powerful. Otherwise, they would not do anything."
The remarks by Hafiz and Bashar tell a great deal. In the absence of pressure, their regime becomes bolder in seeking its goals. When fearful, it retreats to consolidate and survive. Consequently, the only way to get Syria to be moderate in behavior is by applying credible pressure to convince it—at least temporarily—that troublemaking does not pay. This model was most clearly applied when Syria was weak in the 1990s, by Turkey in forcing Syria to stop sponsoring terrorism against itself in 1998, and immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks when it appeared as if a U.S. war against terrorists and their sponsors might embroil Syria, too.
Yet even on each of these and other such occasions—except for the narrowly focused Turkish intervention—Damascus was allowed to get away with the kind of things that would have toppled rulers in most states. Thus, frequent Western attempts to negotiate, bargain with, or appease Syria only worsen the situation by giving the regime the impression that it has nothing to fear. This is what happened when Syria came to understand at the end of the 1990s and after the September 11, 2001, crisis that the United States was not going to target it. Syria then turned the tables and became even more subversively aggressive.
This brings us to Bashar's task when he succeeded to power on the death of his father in 2000. Since the 1980s, Syria has faced big problems. Its Soviet ally and arms supplier collapsed, the economy has not done well, domestic unrest has increased, Israel has widened the conventional military gap to its own advantage, and Saddam was overthrown by the Americans.
Bashar's father and predecessor, Hafiz, maneuvered very well. He participated in the 1991 battle against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait enough to win help from the rich Gulf Arabs and the United States. His involvement in negotiations with Israel also helped, though in the end he refused to make an agreement. Then Hafiz died and passed on the presidency to his inexperienced son.
Clearly, Bashar is no Hafiz. His father was a far better strategist. Unlike Bashar, Hafiz probably would never have withdrawn all his soldiers from Lebanon in 2005 and would have been more careful to avoid friction with the Gulf Arabs and America. He would never have let Iran turn Syria into something like a client state. And Hafiz treated Syria's client, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, like one of the hired help rather than an equal, as Bashar did.
Yet the Assad genes are still working by producing an heir who knows how to maneuver and manipulate. Bashar withdrew from Lebanon but kept Syria's security and economic assets in place. Almost twenty major bombings and assassinations in the first two years after Syrian troops left have shown the Lebanese that Syrian interests must be attended to. By killing Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005, Bashar got into some trouble, but he also eliminated the only man with the stature to unite Lebanon, mobilize Western support, attract massive Saudi financial backing, stand up to Hizballah, and defy Syria. By helping drag Lebanon into war with Israel in 2006, he strengthened Hizballah's chances for seizing power in the country.
Bashar's risk-taking seems to be paying off. On the Iraqi front, he waged war on America at almost no cost to himself. Syria equipped, trained, and sent into battle terrorists who killed thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of Americans without any threat of international action or even condemnation.
Then, on the Lebanese front in 2006, he mounted from behind the scenes what was basically a conventional war against Israel using his Hizballah proxies, again with no cost to himself, though the Lebanese have paid a great deal. The war began when Hizballah finally succeeded after several attempts in kidnapping Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Israel responded by bombing Hizballah forces and their arms smuggling routes, which resulted in significant damage to neighboring Lebanese buildings, and attacking into southern Lebanon while Hizballah fired thousands of rockets into Israel. Much of Hizballah's arms and money came from Tehran, with Syria getting a free ride as co-patron. In Damascus, Bashar became a hero for confronting Israel at Lebanese expense. He has also piled up considerable credit with radical Islamists by being their friend and ally in Iraq, Lebanon, and—by backing Hamas and Islamic Jihad—among the Palestinians.
International pressure or domestic upheaval may cause Bashar's effort's to blow up against him some day, but for the moment, he is riding high. And perhaps that answers the question about Bashar: someone who seems to be acting like a fool in Western terms may well be a genius as a Middle East leader.
So how did this young, new leader and his relatively small, weak country help turn the Middle East—and indeed the world—in such a different, bloody, and dangerous direction?
After 1991, there had been hopes in the West, Israel, and among many people in the Arabic-speaking world that dramatic changes around the globe and in the region would produce a new Middle East of pragmatism, reform, democracy, and peace. Given the Soviet Union's collapse, Saddam's defeat, trends toward democracy elsewhere, America's emergence as the sole super-power, and other factors, a better world seemed to be in birth. A generation of Arabs had experienced defeat, tragedy, and stagnation. Surely they would recognize what had gone wrong and choose another path.
Bashar has taken credit for killing this dream of a more peaceful and democratic Middle East while perhaps overstating that achievement's difficulty. "It was not easy ... to convince many people about our vision of the future," he explained. His goal was to destroy the "cherished Middle East" of the West, Israel, and moderate Arabs, which he viewed as being "built on submission and humiliation and deprivation of peoples of their rights." In its place he would put "a sweeping popular upsurge ... characterized by honor and Arabism ... struggle and resistance."
It is all very familiar. After the 2006 Hizballah-Israel war, the Middle East has clearly and probably irreversibly entered a new era with a decidedly old twist. The possibility of a negotiated Arab-Israeli peace and Arab progress toward democracy is close to dead. Whether they achieved political power or not, radical Islamist groups are setting the agenda. For a half-dozen years, things had been certainly heading in this direction, heralded by the Palestinian and Syrian rejection of peace with Israel in 2000; the turn to a terrorist-based intifada; the fall-out from the September 11, 2001, attacks on America; the post-Saddam violence in Iraq; the Arab regimes' defeat of reform movements; and electoral advances by Hamas, Hizballah, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, along with many other developments.
One of the most visible features of this new, decidedly unimproved, Middle East is an Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas alliance seeking regional hegemony, the destruction of Israel, and the expulsion of Western influence—all the old goals—under the slogan of resistance. Once again the political line is the traditional one of extolling violent struggle in pursuit of total victory rather than viewing moderation as pragmatic, compromise as beneficial, or social progress and economic construction as the highest priority.
Only on two points does the new era of resistance represent a sharp break with the past: unprecedented high levels of Iranian involvement in Arab politics and the creation of an Arab nationalist–Islamist synthesis for which Bashar has been the main promoter and advocate. When one takes into account the fact that Bashar is not really a Muslim—he is an Alawite, a religious community which has never been Muslim whatever outward pretense is made—the accomplishment is stupendous in its audacity.
All of these facts make it no less strange to see the revival of policies so spectacularly unsuccessful the first time around, whose disastrous repercussions are still being felt by Arab societies, the Middle East, and the entire globe. Elements of this worldview have all been tested by time, but they failed by a wide margin.
Consequently, we are left with an intriguing question: Why do Bashar and his allies, colleagues, and clients have an interest in revitalizing a worldview and program that failed so miserably and disastrously, leading the Arab world into years of defeat, wasted resources, dictatorships, and a steady falling behind the rest of the world in most socioeconomic categories?
A large part of the answer is that this state of affairs serves the two groups that matter most in Arab politics: the Arab nationalist dictators and the revolutionary Islamist challengers seeking to displace them. The Arab regimes rejected reforms because change threatened to unseat them. Using demagoguery enabled them to continue as both dictatorships and failed leaderships while still enjoying popular support. On the other side, radical Islamist forces, far more able to compete for mass support than the small though courageous bands of liberals, sought a new strategy to expand their influence and gain power.
Excerpted from The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin. Copyright © 2007 Barry Rubin. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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