Across the Bay

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Party's Over

So the Baath Party Congress is over. Can you feel the change!? This has to be the most pathetic show this side of Baghdad Bob. The reactions in the Arabic papers were highly critical, especially in the London-based dailies Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (see, e.g., here and here), and Al-Hayat (see, e.g., here), but also in the Lebanese An-Nahar (see, e.g., here, and this dissection of Bashar's horrible, horrible speech by Jihad Zein), and the Kuwaiti As-Siyassah (see this editorial by the feisty Ahmad al-Jarallah).

Josh Landis has also covered the event as best as such a freak show could be covered. He links to a couple of good pieces as well. The better ones are this one by Megan Stack, and this editorial in the CSM. Both are very skeptical and have had enough of Bashar's lies.

But perhaps the most telling thing about this charade is the intransigence when it comes to Arab nationalism. Hassan Fattah's and Nick Blanford's pieces that Josh cites both talk about a move away from Arab nationalism and an embrace of Syrianism. This was the hope that Josh shared before the conference. Needless to say it was a false hope, and, with all due respect to my buddy Josh, it was clearly wishful thinking. All one needs to do is read Buthaina Shaaban's sorry remarks (she said worse things that were quoted in the Arabic papers, such as why even the name of the Baath won't be changed, as it was thought before the congress. "We like it the way it is," she told reporters, and then referred to Lebanon and Syria with the Arabist slogan "one people in two countries"), and Bashar's truly awful speech (see also here and here).

Josh commented on Buthaina's ultra-Arabist remarks:

She accused the US of racism, saying:

    Syrian Expatriates Minister and congress spokesperson Buthaina Shaaban accused the U.S. of seeking to undermine Arab identity by fostering religious and ethnic divisions.

    "If we are not Arabs what could we be? Do we want to be Sunnis and Shiites and Christians? Or do we want to be Arabs? I think I can speak in the name of million of Arabs that we want to be Arabs," she said. "If the Baath Party was not there I think we would have to invent it."

What happened to Syrian national identity? It has been suppressed by the Baath Party. Ever since the Baath took revenge on the Syrian Social Nationalist Party for the killing of Adnan Malki in 1955, Syrianism has been effectively banned and taken out of Syria's curriculum and national textbooks. I write about this in my article: "Islamic Education in Syria" Also Translated into Arabic here .

The word "Syria" or "Syrian nation" does not appear in any of the text books used in the twelve years of Islamic education in Syrian schools. Only the Arab Nation and Islamic Nation are referred to. The Syrian government has suppressed Syrianism in favor of Arabism.

One of the great hopes of this conference was that the government would begin to back away from Arabism and begin to define a more practical Syrian national identity which could protect the country and its citizens should there be regime collapse or dramatic change in the future. How else will Syrians learn not to revert to their sectarian loyalties, if they aren't educated to give their loyalty to Syria, their actual nation? Arabism, everyone admits, is no longer a practical national identity. Yes, it has a role in binding together the Arab people who share a common culture and history. But it is no substitute for a Syrian national identity, just as being a member of the common European federation is no substitute for being French, Spanish, or Italian.

Apparently Buthaina saw Mel Brooks' "The Producers" and decided to coopt and paraphrase his line: "Don't be stupid be a smarty, come and join the Baathi party." (It's Damascus springtime, for Assad and Syria... Sham Land is happy, and gay...).

But Bashar's speech really takes the cake. Josh had said on his blog before that Bashar "wasn't a true believer" in Baathism and Arab nationalism. I beg to differ. I think he does believe it, and he's surrounding himself with people who believe it, like Buthaina Shaaban who's being promoted, and the anachronistic Farouq al-Sharaa.

I think Dennis Ross, in an article in The Washington Quarterly, best described Bashar:

Bashar’s Bizarre World:

In fact, one often gets the sense from the Egyptian and Saudi leaders that Bashar simply does not get it. Certainly, his public posture since becoming president has, at a minimum, suggested a remarkably skewed view of the world. From the outset, he has had a penchant for making extreme statements, which some suggest was his way of trying to appeal to the broader Arab public. However, these statements produced a series of public relations disasters. In his initial address to the Arab summit in October 2000, he offered a harsh description of the Israelis reminiscent of rhetoric from the 1950s. When he hosted Pope John Paul II—the embodiment of reconciliation among all religious faiths—he chose to speak of the treacherous mentality of the Jews, declaring that they had “betrayed” and “tortured” Jesus Christ.3 At the Arab summit in Beirut in March 2002, although he declared support for the Saudi peace initiative, he announced that any Israeli was a legitimate target for attack4 and declared that, “as much as we are concerned about peace, we should also be eager to remain steadfast and maintain the intifada [sic].”5 When Bashar spoke about the situation in Iraq just prior to the war, his comments bordered on the hysterical. At one point, he noted that a disaster on par with the creation of the state of Israel and the British betrayal of the Arabs after World War I would befall the Arab world if there was war in Iraq. After the war began, he declared that Arab friendship with the United States was “more fatal than its hostility.”6 Bashar’s rhetoric has continued to remain incoherent and infused with a sense of conspiracy. In a speech he delivered to the Syrian parliament on March 5, 2005, after the assassination of Hariri and the resignation of the Lebanese government, he referred to the “assassination” of Arafat.7 The consistency of such public statements, rather than suggesting a calculated effort to establish himself as a radical to take advantage of growing anti-U.S. sentiment, instead points more to Bashar’s bizarre perception of reality. Just as Arafat was guided by his own mythologies, which prevented him from seeing the changes in the surrounding regional landscape, Bashar’s reality must be recognized for what it is: his own.

Also supportive of his ideological convictions is his view of Hasan Nasrallah, as Ross put it:

Hearing Bashar describe Hizballah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as a democratic figure who understood broad social and public forces and from whom he could learn a great deal—as I did in 2000—reflected what appeared to be Bashar’s genuine admiration for Hizballah. Bashar even invited Nasrallah to speak at a ceremony in his family’s village on the first anniversary of Hafiz’s death.

In fact, read in Ross' article why Bashar will not give up Arab nationalism (see also Byman's article, in the link above).

I am convinced that he very much believes this stuff (I don't think Michael Hudson's preaching of the rebirth of Arabism from Damascus, after meeting at length with Bashar, is a coincidence either), and if Buthaina is any indication, then the "new guard" (you know how I think this dichotomy is utter bullshit) he's setting up is just as dogmatic, if not more so (just read Buthaina's jaw-dropping op-eds in the Daily Star over the last year or so).

Robert Satloff was just as flabbergasted by Bashar's insane speech:

But Assad, a world-class underachiever, fooled us again. He announced no personnel changes, no legislative initiatives, no prison releases, no economic stimulus packages, no constitutional reforms. He didn't mention Iraq or Israel or Palestine or Lebanon or America. He did nothing.

Well, not quite. This man of the twenty-first century—an ophthalmologist by training and one-time head of the Syria Computer Society—did focus his venom on a particularly pernicious enemy of the Syrian people: globalization. He attacked the "information-technology revolution," which he said is leading to the "cultural, political, and moral collapse of the Arab individual and his ultimate defeat even without a fight." Assad's prescription: "As members of the Baath Party, we should first of all redouble our intellectual efforts and political and cultural effectiveness in order to strengthen our national existence, and protect our cultural identity. ... The Baath Party, as should be clear to every one of us, is a cause before it is a political organization, and a civilizing mission before it is a party in power."

So there it was: Assad's answer to calls for reform was not less Baathism, but more. In offering a ringing defense of an ideology whose only other champion these days is a jailed Saddam Hussein, Assad once again showed that his regime is one in whose survival the United States—and the West, more generally—simply has no interest.

Indeed Bashar may be thinking that he can fool people again by removing some of the "old guard" like VP Khaddam, who actually resigned in a theatrical fashion, including a -- almost certainly staged -- confrontation with a pro-regime journalist, Ali Jamalo, who attacked him on the Lebanon file (an episode that was mocked by Ghassan Tueni, which leads me to believe that it was indeed staged! Tueni also kicked around the insufferable Buthaina, who, as Ammar Abdulhamid put it so perfectly is "bask[ing] in the waning glory of a final spotlight as she reported with Sahhaf-like confidence on the meaningless chatter taking place in the background"). Khaddam had a fight with Sharaa on the Lebanon file, and blamed the mistakes on him (perhaps not just him, wink wink!). Although I have zero sympathy for Khaddam, he is in fact right, as he was sidelined a long time ago from the Lebanon file. This fact didn't escape commentators in the Arabic papers, such as Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, and Shaaban Abboud. This is but a theatrical move, perhaps aimed at scapegoating Khaddam for Lebanon, milking that "old guard" theory that everyone seems to buy around here. Take for instance how this NY Sun piece put it:

Damascus has taken steps to meet, on the surface at least, the demands of the international community to end its occupation of Lebanon. Not only have the Syrians withdrawn troops, but yesterday at a Ba'ath party conference, the Syrian vice president who exercised so much influence over Lebanon, Abdul-Halim Khaddam, announced his resignation.

Like I said above, and so many times before, that's utter nonsense. Khaddam was not in charge of Lebanon. Bashar was. Anyway, I don't think it makes a difference anymore, unless perhaps you're Flynt Leverett (see also here).

David Ignatius also wrote on the conference. I think that once again he comes too close to adopting the "helpless Bashar" theory of the "old guard," but he quotes a Sunni dissident who nails it on the head:

"Assad is not a reformer," he insists. "Had he wanted change, he could have done it years ago."

But apparently, Bashar has enough Syrians duped into believing the "old guard" theory. And just to be on the safe side, he made clear that there are two red lines that no one should cross, even in conversation: sectarianism, and the President. How convenient!

Speaking of Sunni Syrian pro-reform activists, don't forget to read Ammar Abdulhamid's op-ed in the DS, as well as his latest post. There he talks a bit about the Syrian people:

How long will it take for the Syrian people to accept and acknowledge the collapse of the Baath Party and the death of the regime?

Well, it all depends on how many people there are that are still willing to think like our Minister of Expatriate Affairs, Bouthaina Shaaban, when she said: “if the there were no Baath we will invent it.”

Accepting the regime’s death means accepting responsibility for the reform process. Since this is an increasingly difficult well-nigh impossible task, and since most opposition parties and dissident movements have no clue how to go about it, they are unlikely to accept the death of the regime, not even when they too eventually collapse until its deadweight.

The voices of reason around are few, but they can still make a difference if they came together. A lively presence in a sea of death can still make a lot of difference, even at this late stage.

Coming together and organizing. Yes, Bashar already thought of that and went after people in a show of strength: imprisoning the Atassi 8 (among others), killing the Kurdish Sheikh Maashouq, and, perhaps, also the Syrian opposition's main backer in Lebanon, Samir Qassir, who works for the paper that publishes all the Syrian dissidents.

So, I think, unfortunately, that Ammar's conclusion in his op-ed will not materialize:

The bankruptcy of the regime will be impossible to hide after the congress ends, leaving the Syrian people with a clear choice to make: to take their destiny into their hands, or leave it in the hands of others. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, Syrians will finally have to face the hard truth of it all: that change paving the way to freedom depends on their own ability to seize the initiative and not allow it to remain in the hands of the regime.

One thing ME studies people failed to appreciate in the 90's (when talk of "civil society" was running high. Just ask Michael Hudson), as Martin Kramer pointed out in his excellent Ivory Towers on Sand, is the tenacity of these regimes. Abdel Aziz al-Khudr, writing in Ash-Sharq al-Awsat the other day, reminded readers of that fact. He wrote that the past years have shown the efficiency of this resistance by the official circles in the Arab world. Those in power should not be underestimated. The over-confident are" brought back to reality through a car bomb that takes the life of a journalist or activist. Their methods are still "more effective than the popular will for change." The stability of the Arab state and its growth at the expense of society is one of the most significant achievements of the last century." This current reality tempts people against change.

Adding to that, Saadeddine Ibrahim, writes about Syrian dissident Riad at-Turk's view that the Syrians were able to rise against the colonial powers but not the "domestic occupiers," who have indeed killed and stolen scores more than what the colonialists did in 25 years!

But he raises an interesting option, when taken in tandem with the suggestion in the CSM editorial (link above). The CSM editorial advised:

[B]ecause Syria's political elite are wed to the economic benefits of their power, it's perhaps economic pressure that will prove most effective.

US sanctions on Syria and its shrinking oil reserves are two such pressure points.

Ibrahim reminds his readers that the Syrian oil resources, since their discovery and export 20 years ago, were never listed in the budget of the Syrian state. In fact, there is a special desk, under the supervision of the President of the Republic, that is in charge of this file, away from the budget of the Syrian state. "It is said that the Assads have made from this article alone more than 5 billion USD. This amount is several times more than the total of what the French occupation stole throughout a quarter of a century."

It's no surprise then that Sharaa's first priority is to try to break away the French from the US, in order to break the isolation Syria's facing. While that remains a possibility, it grows less likely by the day, because of Syrian behavior. For instance, the Qassir killing is not only prompting a reopening of UNSCR 1559 by the UN, but now the US says (see also Rice's interview with Charlie Rose. Summary here) that there is a Syrian hit-list of key Lebanese figures. Jumblat has also put out that information (see here in English), barely veiling a direct accusation at Bashar himself (surprise!). The NYT also carried the story.

Furthermore, it seems, if we are to take Flynt Leverett's word for it, that it was indeed "the French leader, Jacques Chirac, [who] convinced the US president, George Bush, earlier this year that Mr Assad's Lebanon humiliation would deliver 'regime change on the cheap'."

One also must not forget that the Saudis (not to mention the Jordanians) have it in for Bashar as well. So breaking out of his isolation is a formidable task, especially if he continues in his intransigence, as this conference has shown he is doing. As Ross put it, he's in a world of his own.

Update: Nick Blanford talks about the Syrian opposition.

Update 2: Josh Landis picks up on the Khaddam-Sharaa duke-out, and writes:

Sharaa has been scapegoated for the Lebanon fiasco from the beginning. Several people told me that he assured President Asad that there would never be a resolution 1559. When Bashar was contemplating extending Lahoud's presidency, he evidently gave the President the go ahead to change Lebanon's constitution, declaring that both Russia and Algeria would veto the UN resolution in the Security Council. Should we believe this? Then why hasn't he been fired? Perhaps it was a convenient allegation for a decision taken at the top, similar to Bush blaming the CIA for giving him wrong intelligence on Iraq's WMD?

Many sources also claimed that Khaddam advised the president not to extend Lahoud's presidency - the move, which started the Lebanon snowball rolling. But even this "leak" has been brought into doubt. A normally well informed citizen, told me recently, that when the top leadership met to discuss the Lahoud extension - and many advised the President against it - Khaddam conveniently absented himself by flying off to France for medical treatment, allowing him to play a double game: pretending to be against it, while not actually being against it. How can we ever know if any of these allegations are true? There is such a lack of transparency that wild speculation must substitute for news. The result is no one is held responsible and mistakes repeat themselves.

I think this line: "Then why hasn't he been fired? Perhaps it was a convenient allegation for a decision taken at the top," is right on. I think that it fits with Bashar's image that he is good but the system/"old guard" is bad. So people can criticize Sharaa and Khaddam, but the President, he's above the fray. He just got bad advice from the "old guard". No one has sympathy for either Sharaa or Khaddam, which makes me think that the Jamalo incident was indeed a planned event, to make Bashar look clean. But I think Josh's hint is right. This was Bashar's decision, and HIS alone. Khaddam resigned, he and Sharaa get blamed, and Bashar looks like the reformer cleaning house of the "old guard". Pure theatrics. But Josh's last line is the true moral of this story: "The result is no one is held responsible and mistakes repeat themselves." Of course they will. As long as you have Bashar at the helm, with his family and cousins behind him. I.e., as long as the "new guard" is in charge! How about that mind trip!?