Across the Bay

Monday, April 04, 2005

Like Father, Like Son

Lee Smith has yet another excellent piece in the Weekly Standard on Bashar al-Asad.

One of the points Lee makes is that Bashar is not really all that different from his father, and that all things told, he will likely come out of this current crisis beaten and humiliated, but on his feet and he will survive:

The catch is that since Arab rulers do not have to answer to popular constituencies, they can absorb blows that liberal democracies cannot. Hafez, for one, reigned for three decades after he lost the Golan. If Bashar really is like his father, he will get through this very rough spot slightly humiliated, but without any fatal internal challenges to his power.

In fact, Lee thinks Bashar has an advantage that his father didn't have, and that is the myth of the "old guard":

It was Bashar's continued support of the Iraqi insurgency that, well before the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, led many observers to wonder if the novice dictator was in over his head. Perhaps so, but his presumed weakness has afforded him a gambit unavailable to his late father, Hafez, with whom he is so frequently and unfavorably compared. Bashar has managed to convince many people inside and outside of Syria that he is hostage to his father's "old guard." People want to believe this is so because they had hoped the young, Western-educated, computer-literate president would be a real reformer. But if the "old guard" has prevented him from implementing internal reforms for five years, they did not stop him from appointing his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat chief of military intelligence, the top security position in the country, immediately after the Hariri murder.

To banish or kill your enemies and circle the wagons with relatives and tribal associates is a principle favored by all Arab regimes. Syria is a family business, and even without the aura and experience of his father, Bashar runs it very much the way the old man did. Bashar is thought dim-witted because he has backed the Iraqi insurgency and Palestinian terrorist groups despite U.S. warnings, and because he overplayed his hand in Lebanon. But what would Hafez have done in the same circumstances?

It is true that Hafez signed on for the first U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991, but if that Bush White House had decided to depose Saddam and maintain a large presence in neighboring Iraq Hafez would have perceived it as his son now does--a violation of his sphere of influence. "He would've stayed out of the war and supported an insurgency," says Khazen. Bashar is only following the example Hafez set when he backed groups that killed and kidnapped Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

This "old guard" myth has gotten so much on my nerves, especially in how much some in the Western press have been willing to indulge it, even as it was clearly an insult to anyone's intelligence. The list is long, Joe Klein's piece in Time magazine being the latest. See also this faulty and incomplete piece by Nadim Shehadi of the Chatham House. This section is not only telling, it's jaw-dropping:

President Bashar al-Asad of Syria has spent the past two years trying to mend fences with Washington. After the fall of Baghdad, he found himself cornered on all sides by pro-US neighbours: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. With the assassination of Hariri, he also lost his closest allies, France and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon, his only card left, is being snatched away too.
Asad has offered Washington concessions on all the issues of common interest. There has been co-operation over Iraq, where he can better control the border and provide intelligence using Syria’s extensive contacts with the Iraqi opposition that was based in Damascus before the war.
He is also offering collaboration in the ‘war’ on terror where he has proved useful in the past few years. Then there is the willingness for an unconditional resumption of peace talks with Israel, in contradiction to his father’s line.
Asad has visited Turkey and signed a treaty resolving the conflict over the border province of Antioch. Subsequently Ankara mediated for him both with Israel and the US. He has shown willingness, if not eagerness and enthusiasm, for economic and political reform, by among other things, releasing political prisoners and allowing private media and banks, as well as abolishing Ba’ath party military education in schools. (Emphasis added.)

Josh Landis has argued against the "old guard" myth, and recently turned our attention to a piece by Subhi Hadidi that made a similar argument, that the people who run Syria are not the old guard, but Bashar and a circle of limited family members (as I and Michael Young have also argued). Hadidi makes a claim similar to the one made by the Kuwaiti as-Siyasah right after the Hariri assassination, that the decision to eliminate Hariri was taken way up in the power chain and was in fact opposed by the old guard figures of Kanaan and Khaddam (a similar claim was made by Michael Young, and an identical claim was made after the attempt on Marwan Hamade):

Après ce survol, la question qui s’impose aujourd’hui est de savoir si ce groupe de décideurs, ou plus précisément le cercle des six, est assez solide et compact pour faire face aux épreuves à venir. C’est en tout cas ce que les développements dans les mois qui viennent ne manqueront pas de mettre en évidence, avec l’aggravation de la crise du régime, la perte de la carte libanaise et l’exaspération des antagonismes au sommet de l’Etat. A ce propos, et selon les dernières rumeurs qui circulent à Damas, il semblerait que Ghazi Kana’an et Abdelhalim Khaddam avaient voté contre l’élimination de Hariri, alors que Assef Shawkat, Maher al-Assad et Bahjat Soulaymane avaient voté pour. Quant au président Bachar, les rumeurs l’ignorent complètement et ne daignent même pas signaler s’il s’était abstenu ou pas!…

I'll translate the last part:

According to the latest rumors circulating in Damascus, it seems that Ghazi Kanaan and Abdelhalim Khaddam had voted against the elimination of Hariri, whereas Assef Shawkat [Bashar' brother-in-law], Maher al-Assad [Bashar's brother], and Bahjat Suleiman [extremely powerful intelligence officer, and an early backer of Bashar] had voted for it. As for president Bashar, the rumors ignore him completely and do not even deign to signal whether he abstained or not!

Perhaps Farouq al-Sharaa's frenzied attempts at removing from the UN report the threat made by Bashar to Hariri in their last meeting is an indication as to where his vote went (Kofi Anan refused that as well as the embarrassing attempts by pro-Syrian Lebanese officials at rewording the French proposal for an international investigative committee). Like father, like son indeed.