Across the Bay

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Bitterness in Syria

Lebanese Demonstrators Place des Martyrs

Josh Landis and Ammar Abdulhamid have both written reflective pieces on the mood, and bitter disappointment, in Syria.

I'll start with Josh's post. Josh, himself a mild skeptic about the notion of Lebanese national reconciliation, was surprised at the Lebanese reaction. He echoed my sense of vindication at the current spectacle in Lebanon:

    Bitterness and cynicism have reigned as king and queen of the region for so long that most people have forgotten the simple and much maligned power of faith in the future. And it has not come out of Iraq or Palestine, but out of little, exceptional Lebanon, which so many had written off as the Noah’s Arc of disorder. Long live Lebanon!

Josh notes that the exact opposite spirit reigns in Syria:

    If Lebanon has seen a renaissance of spirit, Syria has had its spirit drained. The Ba’th (Renaissance) Party is in all time disarray. Fa’iq Ismail of the Progressive Front wrote the other day that the Party would not discuss “domestic maters” in its much anticipated meeting this summer. Only foreign topics would be on the table. That means no party reform as many had hoped, no legalization of new political groupings, and no end to the straight jacket of socialism and one party rule. If Lebanon is entering a new era of freedom with new leaders, Syria is mired in the old. There are no demonstrations here.

However, Josh repeated what he told me about how the Syrians are watching Lebanon, much more so than Iraq:

    A month ago, foreign reporters were swarming all over Damascus trying to read the impact of Iraqi elections here. Only 14,000 Iraqis voted. It is the impact of events in Lebanon that they should have come to report on. That is what the Syrians are paying attention to.

And they are watching very carefully. The final quote in Josh's piece is of interest to me: "The Lebanese have freedom. Every sect has a party to express the needs of the people. Isn't that what everyone wants and what Allah intended?" (Emphasis mine.) With an emerging consociational system to their east and a much more established one to their west, it's hard for the Syrians not to take notice. Syria itself has a mosaic of ethnic groups and minorities like its two neighors, although with a much larger Sunni Arab majority. However, with Kurds, Armenians, Turkomen, various Christian sects, and of course the ruling Alawites, a consociational system would be a very good solution for the Syrians, and especially the Alawites who have always feared Sunni Arab dominance.

Alas, instead of going down that road, the Alawites have continued to shun and ridicule that system, and opted instead to Sunnify themselves, and indulge the fantasies of Arabism. But as Josh mentioned, some in Syria are saying "Arabism is dead." Some on the street, like that newspaper seller, think the consociational system (oft maligned as "sectarian isolationism") is the best way to go. Remember what Ajami said on that Al-Jazeera roundtable where he reminded his audience that "we must see the Arab world for what it is, in all honesty." Josh wonders whether the ruling Baath party will wake up to this reality. I'm not holding my breath.

However, Ammar Abdulhamid is hoping against hope:

    [D]espite the lack of real progress with regard to the reform process launched more than four year ago, these leaders remain the main source of hope for change in the country. Now is the time to begin capitalizing on this. Now is the time for the reform process in Syria to develop some teeth.

I sympathize with Ammar's frustration, but at this point, I'm afraid he's kidding himself. In fact, as Michael Young repeatedly said, the notion of regime-driven reform was never more than a cruel joke. I'm sure Ammar knows this. In fact, despite the hopeful (if not desperate) call for the regime to do the right thing, you can see Ammar's mounting skepticism in the piece, which practically echoes my posts in the last few days:

    There have long been warning signs along the way that the Syrian regime chose to ignore. That's why it has painted itself into a corner today. The hard-liners in the regime have built up an impressive record of miscalculations during the last few years, paving the way for Syria's current predicament. Moreover, they seem ever capable of imposing their will in times of crises - the very crises they helped create in the first place. Indeed, for all the talk of reform in Syria, it is hard-liners who seem to have shaped the country's internal and external policies ever since President Bashar Assad came to power.

Hardliners, or Bashar himself! The reluctance of some Syrian progressives to accept that Bashar is not the reformer they had convinced themselves he would be is understandable. The anonymous Eurabian Times piece said it best: "Bashar turned out to be just another Ba’athist."

Ammar is asking this regime to actually have a long term vision that benefits the country. This kleptocracy as I said in my "Lebanese and Iraqi Order" post, "is not ... equipped for this kind of thinking."

    Bashar is no reformer, and surely no long-term visionary. Had he had a shred of long-term insight, he would have realized that his only bet was to start to lay the groundwork for a consociational system in Syria.
    Their reformer was nothing more than a shortsighted dictator.

A regime like that doesn't have strategies. As my friend Lee said, they have instincts. It's all about self-preservation.

Ammar is pleading with the regime to think straight (as opposed to making alliances with Iran and Russia!) and drop the delusional macho grandstanding (which, as I hinted in my last post with the quote from Buthaina Shaaban, is very much part of this). But the reality is that it's not capable of doing that. Witness these statements by that same insufferable Shaaban. If I'm not mistaken, she (a Minister in the Syrian government) just accused the US of murdering Hariri.

These are not people you work with. These are people that you pray will soon be out the door.