Across the Bay

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Bashar and Brookings

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Martin Indyk's FT op-ed where he lambasted Bashar. Last week, Indyk was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations. Indyk piled it on.

Commenting on Syria's talent of misreading developments (exemplified by the brilliant Farouq ash-Sharaa), Indyk said:

The one thing I regret about this process of getting the Security Council resolution, is that somebody seems to have bragged beforehand about how sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, was going to be in there. That appeared as you know, in the New York Times Monday morning. But to get unanimity, the threat of sanctions was dropped. There is only the threat of further action if Syria does not cooperate.
That’s an inevitable result of the negotiating process in the UN Security Council, but what it does, I’m afraid, is send the wrong signal to the Syrians, who are chronically prone to misreading the map. They may conclude that the United States failed in this resolution to get a reference to sanctions and therefore they don’t have to worry about it, which would be a big mistake on their part, but I’m afraid that’s how they’ll read it. To tell you why I’m afraid of this, I happened, by pure coincidence, to be in Damascus the day after UN Resolution 1559 was passed [calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon] and the Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa told me that we, the United States, were very fortunate that Syria allowed the resolution to pass. Otherwise, it would be a great humiliation for us if it had failed. This is the kind of disillusion that the Syrians indulge in. It would be unfortunate if a unanimous Security Council resolution demanding Syrian cooperation would be interpreted in Syria as something that was weak and somehow dodged a bullet because it doesn’t mention sanctions.

Then Indyk revealed some of things that were discussed when he met Bashar in private in September of last year, after the passing of UNR 1559:

I came away from that meeting, which was unusual because he was there on his own—he didn’t have a translator, note-taker, or foreign minister that is normal for presidential meetings—and we had a long talk that I thought was pretty candid. He talked about the problems he faced within his own regime, the incompetence of the people around him. He was quite disarming about the situation of Iraq, in which he said that Syria had assisted the insurgency because it was not in its interest for the United States to have an easy time in Iraq because the United States would then turn its attention on Syria. But he told me that all that had changed now; that the interests had changed because they were concerned that chaos in Iraq would spread chaos to Syria, and so now he was ready to cooperate with the United States.
I came away from the meeting thinking that he had developed what appeared to be a very shrewd strategy; that he would cooperate with us over Iraq, that he would pursue peace with Israel in a serious way, and that he hoped in that way we would leave him alone to have his way with Lebanon.

By the way, now you realize why the Bashar cheerleaders always "leave out" Lebanon when discussing a potential US-Syrian "deal" -- a secret deal of course, where Syria doesn't concede anything publicly -- (like Josh Landis has been doing. Flynt Leverett actually explicitly said that Bashar should keep Lebanon!). But the other thing is how quickly Bashar managed to squander the immense unearned capital that he had coming in. It was a capital built on a lie; a joke. It was the myth of him as the modernizing reformer, but one hampered by the "Old Guard" (turns out, this trope of the Old Guard was even used in Hafez's days!) and all kinds of similar myths and lies that he managed to milk for 3-4 years (and still does to some extent, in different varieties). Indyk realized this after their meeting, and to his credit is now admitting it:

He was under pressure, but he seemed to have figured out an approach of which making peace with Israel was a critical component. And he said some things about his willingness with Israel that was a departure from his father’s position. But what happened in the aftermath of that, I think, tells you a lot about this guy. He did not cooperate in terms of stopping the support for the insurgency from Syria. And other than repeating statements he made before about a willingness to make peace with Israel, he did nothing to follow through on that to indicate any kind of seriousness or genuineness about his desire for peace.
Instead, he wreaked havoc in Lebanon; he apparently allowed for the assassination of Rafik Hariri. There’s a great disconnect between the words and the actions, which leaves me with a big question mark about whether he simply says one thing and does another, or whether he’s not capable of pulling the levers of power in Syria in a way that he can deliver on what he’s talking about. Either way, he has proved himself to be a master at making all the wrong mistakes—all the mistakes possible.

Indyk's description is remarkably similar to what I've said about Bashar, calling him "the Syrian version of Arafat." Indyk also called Bashar's regime by its true name: a "thugocracy."

The part about Bashar willing to concede on Iraq and sign a peace with Israel is not new. I seriously doubt its real validity, as I've explained before. It's consistent with Syrian maneuvering. But what's funny about it is now we're being sold the "Bashar as the last bulwark of Arab nationalism" line! The hilarity lies in that the people peddling this line are the same people who were saying that he didn't really believe in Arab nationalism. Sami Moubayed who wrote the pathetic piece linked above, himself wrote a few weeks ago that "In fact, ideological parties were never too popular in Syria. Michel Aflaq, for example, the founder of the Baath, ran for office on a party ticket in 1943 and 1949, losing both times because Baathist ideology was not appealing to the Syrians." And like Josh's contention that Bashar is really a technocrat-friendly modernizer, Moubayed wrote back then that "as ideologies fail their creators all over the world, the new generation of Syrians will head towards politicians who have no ideological convictions and are working only for the interests of their respective communities. This means, the future is for moderate politicians in Syria." Now it's the opposite! Now we are told that "there is a consensus between the street and government, and these issues mainly concern Lebanon, Palestine and the Iraqi resistance."

This not-so-subtle shift can also be seen in the attitude of Flynt Leverett, whom I recently criticized. I noted how toned down is all the fawning about Bashar's "reformist impulses" (and how they're confirmed by just looking at the woman he married. Bashar's sister Bushra also defied her father when she eloped with Asef Shawkat. I guess that confirms her and Asef's reformist impulses as well.). Now the most prominent line of argument is "don't remove Bashar or else we'll have chaos." And Leverett has the audacity to criticize the US and the EU for supposedly not having a clear policy when it comes to Syria!

Recently, Ammar Abdulhamid gave a talk at Brookings (which I'll try to come back to in depth later. See also his earlier appearance on Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria), and he and Leverett answered questions afterwards. Leverett again tried to sell us Bashar's "long-term agenda for Syria" (echoed by Josh Landis), and how he might seize the moment and get rid of Asef and his brother Maher (see Ammar's recent post that touches on this). Now we're being told that it's really Asef who's the "real" bad guy, and Bashar should get rid of him and embark on the road of reform (i.e., another variation of the Old Guard "holding him down" meme). But like I said before, Flynt has tied his reputation to this line, so he will defend it to the bitter end. Indyk, to his credit, has recognized this to be the nonsense that it is, and has identified it as such in so many words. (Even the Syrian opposition inside Syria which used to urge Bashar to adopt reform, has given up on this option by declaring Bashar part of the problem.)

Ali Hamadeh in his column today said that Bashar tried to use Indyk to create some sort of a pro-Bashar cheerleading squad (he called it a lobby) in Washington. Whether that's true or not, it didn't work out, as is clear from Indyk's remarks. In other words, Bashar went to Washington and all he got was a lousy "Inheriting Syria" t-shirt.