Syria Update

Upfront warning: This is a long one.

Syria has reportedly closed its border with Jordan, although a government official denies this. It wouldn’t be surprising, though–Jordan is to the south of Syria, and Daraa, the epicenter of the protest movement, is in southern Syria. It would be ironic, however, if Syria closed the border to prevent weapons from flowing across, because it has been a major source of weapons for insurgents in Lebanon, which has forced Lebanon to closely monitor its border crossing with Syria. Going into Syria from Lebanon is clear sailing, but going into Lebanon from Syria there is a miles long backup of truck traffic. I asked my driver if it was about searching for weapons and how long the wait for truckers was. His answers were, “yes,” and “up to three days.”

Elliott Abrams demands more action from President Obama, but it’s not clear to me what Obama can do in this case. We’re not going to invade Syria or launch an additional NATO venture against them. He could recall our ambassador, but at the very end of last year he sent an ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years*–would recalling him after a mere 4 months really have much impact? Abrams notes that President Obama pressured Mubarak, a strong U.S. ally, to leave, and wonders “why the reticence about Assad, a long-time American enemy?” First, Syria’s been a little bit more of an ally than Mr. Abrams lets on, but second, it’s a hell of a lot easier to pressure your subordinate allies than your enemies. The U.S. has numerous ways to inflict punishment on Egypt if it doesn’t go along with us, because Egypt depends on us in so many ways (particularly militarily). Notably, Abrams stops short of giving any suggestions about what Obama could actually do other than talk more loudly,** and perhaps reimpose controls on exports for repairs on Syria’s state-owned airline.

Mr. Abrams is eager to criticize Obama for “having followed a foolish policy of engagement with this barbaric regime.”*** But engagement has more often been a successful path than isolation (c.f., North Korea, Cuba; but as support for Abrams, see Libya). I would also argue that barbaric is too harsh a word. There are strong religious freedoms in Syria, unlike in Saudi Arabia; he has been following a path of economic liberalization; he released a number of political prisoners in the past few years; he shortened the length of required military service to 18 months, sending a clear signal that he does not intend to engage in further war with Israel; and as one of his responses to the protests he granted citizenship to Syrian Kurds, who had previously been classified as foreigners.

Assad is far from an ideal liberal democratic leader, to be sure. Syria’s on-going manipulation of Lebanese politics is dreadful**** (but both Mr. Abrams and I are Americans, so we can’t exactly point to our own country as the model to follow on that score), and the imprisonment of a teenage blogger for “spying” is patently ridiculous.

But as this Syrian blogger notes,

Bashar isn’t Ben Ali or Mubarak. He isn’t universally hated. Indeed, he is generally given the benefit of the doubt, even liked in many quarters.

And he links to this very informative essay by David Lesch (who wrote a biography of Bashar Assad). Some snippets:

I also saw [Bashar al-Assad] being consumed by an inert Syrian system. Slowly, he replaced those of questionable loyalty with allies in the military, security services and in the government. But he does not have absolute power. He has had to bargain, negotiate and manipulate pockets of resistance inside the government and the business community to bring about reforms, like allowing private banks and establishing a stock exchange, that would shift Syria’s socialist-based system to a more market-oriented economy.

But Mr. Assad also changed along the way. … As is typical for authoritarian leaders, he had begun to equate his well-being with that of his country, and the sycophants around him reinforced the notion. It was obvious that he was president for life…

Even with the escalating violence there, it’s important to remember that Syria is not Libya and President Assad is not Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The crackdown on protesters doesn’t necessarily indicate that he is tightening his grip on power; it may be that the secret police, long given too much leeway, have been taking matters into their own hands.

All of that sounds right to me. Keep in mind that Bashar al-Assad straddles two worlds. He’s a product of the cold war (and the superpowers’ use of proxy states in the Middle East) and of the conflict with Israel. At the same time, both he and his wife are products of the English liberal establishment (he is a British-trained ophthalmologist who lived and worked in England, she was a British-born and raised banker for J.P. Morgan. Both of those elements are a part of who he really is. Bashar was not supposed to become president; his older brother was, until he was killed in a car accident. There are reasons to suspect that Bashar might have preferred to not become president (he doesn’t always look comfortable playing the role of supreme leader). A rather too-fawning article about Asma al-Assad in Vogue***** includes the following picture, which I think is meaningful, even if it’s surely staged.

Can anyone imagine Qaddafi in such a picture? This is no Nixon-on-the-beach-in-wingtips moment where a leader is trying, and failing, to look like an average guy.

This is why I–and it seems many other Middle East observers–find Bashar al-Assad intriguing. He’s not a ruthless thug who came to power in a military coup (although that is how his father came to power). He gives the impression of being a basically decent (if obviously privileged) person who’s trying to nudge a corrupt and calcified system towards a more liberal approach, while facing all the temptations of power that perhaps inevitably corrupt everyone, no matter how decent.

That could all be wrong, of course. It could be the produce of wishful thinking or romanticism. But I’ll reiterate what I’ve said in the past–my experience in Syria was that Bashar al-Assad was not hated. Wry looks when I mentioned his name were the norm, rather than expressions of either hate or fear. My impression is that Syrians despise the system–particularly the security forces–more than Assad himself, and that they distinguish between them. But that’s no more than an impression; I’m not an expert. But even if I’m wrong, and Assad himself is much worse than I suspect, it’s good to keep in mind what David Lesch wrote about the possible alternatives;

What’s more, anti-Assad elements should be careful what they wish for. Syria is ethnically and religiously diverse and, with the precipitous removal of central authority, it could very well implode like Iraq. That is why the Obama administration wants him to stay in power even as it admonishes him to choose the path of reform.

Keeping in mind Robert Putnam’s arguments about the importance of institutions in civil society for a well-functioning democracy, I’m very doubtful about the prospects of a positive transition to popular sovereignty in Syria at this time, so advocates of quick regime change there, like Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, are, I think, too sanguine by half. And he, to be sure, is primarily focused on how the toppling of the Syrian government would be “a body blow to Iran,” dramatically limit the influence of Shi’ism in the region, and improve peace prospects in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I’m dubious about all of those outcomes. That is, they’re all quite possible, but with much more marginal effect than he seems to suggest. And the downside of regime change, a much less stable Syria, with the potential for a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, or a grab for power by a new set of military generals, is underplayed in his analysis. He says only that regime change “is not a smooth process,” and admits that “[t]here are many reasons that the neighbors (Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Iraq) don’t want to see turmoil in Syria,” but without going into details. But wait, Israel and Lebanon might not want regime change?! That’s a pretty significant claim that goes undiscussed. He’s right, of course–Israel and Lebanon both want a change of policy in Syria (perhaps the only thing they’re both agreed on), and undoubtedly both would like to see major changes among the army’s officer corps. But regime change is altogether a different matter. And I think the reason is that they recognize that Assad is not Qaddafi. That a Bashar al-Assad making marginal moves toward a more liberal Syrian system is more knowable and stable, less risky, than the possible alternatives.

Bashar al-Assad could, from a very optimistic point-of-view, be a Machiavellian prince trying to restore the Republic, or more accurately, create a Republic where one has never existed, in a society that has never known popular sovereignty. Assuming that’s true–and it’s speculative, of course–whether he’s up to the task is anyone’s guess. After all, how many leaders are?

It’s not that I’m arguing against the protesters. They may, in fact, be aiding Assad by putting another source of pressure on the entrenched security forces. (For small evidence, I refer back to Assad’s granting citizenship to the Kurds, and add his lifting of the hated Emergency Law, even if it what replaced it is not too dissimilar–is the falsehood in the change really meant to fool the people, or is it perhaps meant to fool the security services?) And I think people everywhere and always have the right to protest against their government, and I support opponents of authoritarian regimes. But I can’t help but wonder if the best outcome is the continuation of al-Assad in power to provide stability and continuity toward liberalization while the protesters enable him to shake up the security forces and the military’s officer corps.

I can’t say I really know, so I’m not going to adopt an attitude of confident certainty like so many others do on this issue. And this is all a bit meandering, but I’m going to leave it as is, to reflect my meandering thoughts on the issue. And I really hope my writing on Syria doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass next time I apply for a visa to visit there. (And of course US military intervention there would probably make it much less safe for me to return.) I like Syria, a lot, and I’d hate like hell to be unable to return. The people are wonderful, the food is great, and the culture and history are fascinating. When states get labeled “barbaric,” it’s very easy for outsiders to begin to think the place and all its people are. But Syrians are not at all barbaric–I’d rather walk around Damscus or Latakia at one in the morning than any American city I’ve been in, and I think they are far more leery of war than most Americans are. They’re not “better” than Americans. But they’re not “worse,” either. As several Syrians have said to me, “We love Americans; we don’t understand why you hate us.”

*President Bush withdrew our ambassador to Syria in protest for Syria’s apparent (alleged?) involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
**I prefer T. Roosevelt’s suggestion to talk softly but carry a big stick.
***I suppose it’s possible that Mr. Abrams’ ethnicity plays a role here. Given Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah and Hamas, I could hardly blame any Jewish person for having a much more negative view of Syria and its leader than I have.
****There seem to be several threads that lead to Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. One is that Lebanon is historically part of the region traditionally called Syria, and the Syrian government has never been thrilled with the post-Ottoman drawing of lines that disaggregated the region into separate states. Another is that keeping Lebanon in turmoil keeps Israel in turmoil, a sort of containment strategy that theoretically puts pressure on Israel to return the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. And a third seems to be that Syria wants to play the role of regional power, like so many other states have throughout history.
*****It is Vogue, after all. I doubt they’re known for hard-hitting political journalism.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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2 Responses to Syria Update

  1. Matty says:

    I caught the BBC news on the radio today and when they had stopped blathering on about a wedding (be glad you live in a republic) there was a brief piece on Syria. What caught my attention was a claim there have been solidarity rallies in Jordan, is this kind of cross border support common in the region and could it have any effect?

  2. James Hanley says:

    Matty, NPR has been blathering on about the damned wedding as well. We only pretend to live in a republic–we’re actually all really really sorry about that little revolution thingy and while we don’t want you to actually make any rules for us anymore, we hope you’ll let us still fantasize about being the subjects of a bunch of middlebrow shits.

    As to your question, I’m not sure if it’s common. I don’t see it having much effect unless it becomes pretty large and perhaps puts pressure on the Jordanian government to put pressure on the Syrian government–but the Jordanian government itself is not democratic, so…

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