Across the Bay

Friday, July 07, 2006

Assad Regime = Instability

Ammar Abdulhamid has written an excellent op-ed for the Daily Star explaining the real nature of the Assad regime in Syria (père et fils) and reminding us why the Assads (plural), and the ineherent nature of the regime they created, can never "reform" or abandon the destabilizing foreign policy, which is inseparably tied to domestic policy and regime survival. That last point I've said a million times before, and so have other insightful commentators such as Michael Young and Lee Smith.

Therefore, it was always amusing to me to hear how the Assad regime was a source of "stability," or better still, that the younger thug is a "reformer." Both arguments always struck me as naive and/or ill-informed at best, or worse, apologetics and propaganda.

Ammar first points out why it was always impossible for Bashar to reform anything even if he had wanted to, which nothing suggests that he did/does.

But there are a set of excellent points that should perhaps be summarized into bullet points, and should serve as constant reminders every time you hear someone talking about Syria, and "engagement" and "process."

* "The aggressiveness of the Assad regime, therefore, seems intrinsic."

* "[T]ransferring power from father to son was meant to preserve this state of affairs: Alawite rule in Syria and the Assad family's control of the Alawite community."

* "Rather than introduce reform, Assad's real mandate was to maintain the status quo."

* "Thus, as had been the case with his father previously, the young president's inability to change much in domestic Syrian affairs left foreign policy as the only outlet for Assad to draw much-needed legitimacy for his rule."

* "Bashar can never truly be interested in a final resolution of Syria's outstanding foreign entanglements. Having to continuously manage outside crises is the only way for him and his family to maintain their grip on power."

* "Adventurism, therefore, will remain a mainstay of Syrian foreign policy."

(AE: On this point and the one preceding it, as well as the very first point, see this excellent quote by Lee Smith: "It is worthwhile to note that a state fearful of sectarian conflict runs a regional policy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel that aims to provoke elsewhere its own worst nightmares at home.")

* "Assad and the rest of his family will continue to up the ante in their confrontation with the international community."

* "To them the game and the endgame are synonymous."

(AE: Hence the need to be locked in a "process" without having to reach, or ever even being interested in reaching, a solution or compromise. Those ubiquitous so-called "cards" are policy. Which is why Ammar hit it on the head when he said "Bashar can never truly be interested in a final resolution of Syria's outstanding foreign entanglements.")

As such, Ammar rightly concludes, "stability in Syria and in the region" contrary to the common wisdom of the apologists and cheerleaders, "will remain [an] illusory goal for as long as the Assads are at the helm in Syria."

Addendum: Here's a classic article for your records. This piece also explains a lot of the nonsense that we've heard and continue to hear about the Assad regime and supports much of the points raised by Ammar.

Take this paragraph for instance:

References to Syria's "old guard" predate Bashar's ascension. The term first gained currency among Western observers in the mid-1990s, when the elder Assad was said to be on the brink of signing a peace treaty with Israel. In 1994, Janes Defence Weekly reported that Assad was replacing much of the "old-guard, combat-tested officers who have kept him in power since he took over in November 1970, with a new breed of security controllers" who were less opposed to peace.[3] Although Assad did, if fact, fire many senior security officials, he remained as unwilling as ever to make peace with the Jewish state. Nevertheless, the notion that it was the regime's "old guard," not Assad, that obstructed peace persisted. "Assad must still cater to the old guard," reported Business Week in 1999. "The Syrian President maintains his power through a network of military and intelligence commanders, and he must be careful not to look soft in the talks. That's one reason Assad can't afford to settle for anything less than a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights."

There's a wonderful section on the real maneuverings behind the so-called Damascus Spring:

The Damascus Spring was a temporary, carefully managed political opening engineered by Assad to outmaneuver his rivals and consolidate his grip on power by drawing support from outside the regime. Once he had fully asserted his authority, the activities of the reformers became a liability for the Syrian president and were quickly curtailed. While many in the regime had misgivings about the increasingly bold activities of Syrian dissidents, many of those who were arrested ran into trouble after they criticized people close to Bashar or challenged the legacy of his father. For example, the country's leading dissident, MP Riyad Sayf, was arrested after he released a study showing that a lucrative mobile phone contract awarded to Syriatel, a company controlled by Assad's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, would cost the government billions of dollars in lost revenue. Riyad al-Turk was arrested after he condemned the country's "hereditary republic" - a direct swipe at Bashar.

And this excellent concluding quote:

"This story of an old guard that prevents some reforms is nonsense," concurs one Syrian businessman interviewed by a Western NGO. "Bashar manipulates everybody and this serves him as a cover, especially for intoxicating European officials who believe in him."

Yes, but it was more than just European officials. It was specifically that particular species, the "peace processors," who were really responsible for this term. It was applied to Hafez in the heyday of the "process" and was revived for his son by smitten "processors" who were given court access.

Just for the record.