Posted by Joshua on Thursday, July 8th, 2010
David Lesch has published a overview article of Syrian politics since Bashar took power. He concentrates on quotes and impressions of the President from his interviews over the years. David returned this week from two weeks in Damascus. His latest impressions are not included in this article. Here are extracts from the article.
The Evolution of Bashar al-Asad
Middle East Policy, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Summer 2010
By David W. Lesch
A U.S. official recently commented to me that in his government office the analysts had determined Syria to be more “diabolical” than Iran because Syrian President Bashar al-Asad “is ten times smarter than [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad.” My, how times have changed. It was not that long ago that iterations emanating from Washington and beyond regularly derided, even mocked, Bashar as incompetent, naïve and weak.
The fact of the matter is that Syria is practically immune to innovation and short-term change. There is an almost institutionalized revulsion to it from the lowest-level bureaucrats to the heads of ministries. Change in Syria just does not happen quickly; it is incremental at best…..
Bashar did not adequately adjust to the crucial underlying changes in American foreign policy after 9/11. This heightened Syria’s exposure to the U.S. regime-change rhetoric that characterized the Bush doctrine……
I have personally seen Bashar al-Asad grow more comfortable as president over the years — perhaps too comfortable. When I first met him in 2004, he was still a bit unsure of the world about him. Particularly befuddling was U.S. policy. In 2005, he was defensive and angry, especially as Syria had been forced out of Lebanon, something for which he felt he should have received at least a little credit. In early 2006, having survived the worst that 2005 had to offer, he began to feel more secure in his position, more sure of his future. In the summer of 2006, during the Hezbollah-Israeli war, Bashar’s confidence grew, perhaps in proportion to the regional perception that Hezbollah, by surviving the Israeli onslaught, had inflicted a defeat upon the IDF. His anger at the United States turned almost into cockiness; the Bush administration had taken its best shot, and he was still standing….
Bashar al-Assad’s Election in 2007 Go to His Head
“This is the first time I felt that Bashar began to believe the sycophants, that to lead the country was his destiny. Maybe it is, but his view of the office had certainly evolved since the early years of his rule. In the 1950s, U.S. authorities frequently referred to friendly dictatorships as transitional authoritarian regimes, a necessary stage in the heat of the Cold War that would “transition” to democracy with U.S. guidance and support. Of course, more often than not, the transitional authoritarian leaders did not want to transition. They liked the level of power they had accumulated, and in many cases had become convinced (or had convinced themselves) that the well-being of the country was synonymous with their tenure in power. Considering that domestic and regional unrest have somewhat abated, I wonder if Bashar has passed the tipping point in this regard.”…
As Bashar gains confidence in his international standing, one hopes he will become more comfortable with public diplomacy. To him it is a matter of trust, and he remains very suspicious, as does Syria as a whole, of the outside world. I have seen his public diplomacy at the domestic level improve immeasurably over the last six years. I was with him (and his wife) after a special concert at the new opera house in Damascus in May 2007, and he did a superb job of working the room at the reception that followed the performance, listening intently to every person with whom he visited. By the end of the evening, he had spoken personally with everyone. I saw him work the balcony, so to speak, while viewing the post-election parade in front of his very modest presidential office in the Rowda area of Damascus. He made eye contact with and pointed toward as many of the people marching in front of him as he could, even inviting whole families from the street to spend some time with him on the balcony…..
Bashar — and Syria — just wants to be taken seriously by the international community.
Damascus wants to be seen as a problem solver, not a problem seeker.
Do not expect Damascus to completely sever its ties with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Quite to the contrary, Bashar sees his country as a conduit for the West to develop a dialogue with these very entities. While Syria continues to maintain friendly relations with them — to the great consternation of the United States — Bashar believes that his country cannot play the role of regional facilitator unless it cultivates its diverse connections. Unfortunately, his timing in doing so, especially in early 2010, when the Obama administration appeared to be reaching out to Damascus, is occasionally less than ideal. This has given the naysayers in Washington more grist for the mill, feeding their opposition to any improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations.
Not all powerful
Bashar is definitely not all-powerful. He struggles against systemic corruption and an institutional, bureaucratic and cultural inertia.
On many issues, he has to negotiate, bargain and manipulate the system to get things done, and I have witnessed this first hand. An array of Faustian bargains was erected under his father, such as unswerving loyalty in return for personal enrichment. This has the regime sincerely saying and wanting to do one thing while important groups connected to or actually in the regime are sometimes doing something quite different. There is really nothing Bashar can do about it without undercutting his support base, especially in a threatening regional environment when he needs all the friends in and outside of the regime that he can muster. He told me something in October 2008 that provided insight into his thinking along these lines. We were discussing the potential of elevating the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations brokered by Turkey that had begun earlier in the year to direct talks. He said that he really did not want to elevate them without more assurance of success, that he was “new to this game” and, since it was his “first time doing this,” that he “could not afford to fail.” He made his decision regarding pursuing negotiations with Israel, and he has arrayed people around him who agree with it. But there are elements who do not agree, so Bashar believes he has just one shot at this, and he had better get it right.
This is a very important reason that it is absolutely necessary from his perspective for the entire Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967, line to be returned to Syria. This is vital to his domestic legitimacy, his legacy-in-the-making compared with that of his father (who “lost” the Golan as minister of defense in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war), and to his regional clout, his ability to play the facilitator and create some distance between Damascus and Teheran.
Anti-Syrianism in the Obama Administration
There is still a good bit of leftover anti-Syrian inertia in the Obama administration, in the Pentagon and the intelligence communities, and in Congress, not to even speak of the negative image of Syria among the American people. There are also other obstacles to an improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations: a web of UN resolutions, a UN tribunal on the Hariri assassination and a sanctions regime erected by the Bush administration.
The Syrians will not fully trust anyone but President Obama himself to offer public declarations on improving the U.S.-Syrian relationship. When Obama talks — or acts — the rest of the U.S. government will line up behind him, just as the rest of the U.S. government lined up behind Bush’s confrontational policies. However, Obama’s waffling during the last year in the face of stiff diplomatic resistance from a hawkish Israeli government has not generated confidence in Damascus that it can count on the U.S. president just yet.
The Bush administration wasted six years with Syria when it could have cultivated a productive relationship with an inexperienced and more pliable Syrian president early on. The Bush legacy to Obama is that the American president will now have to deal with a stronger leader, battle-tested by policies that were meant to get rid of him.
There have been positive gestures between Damascus and Washington since Obama came to office. The Obama administration has begun a diplomatic dialogue, has announced the return of the U.S. ambassador to Syria, and has waived some restrictions in the Syrian Accountability Act. On the other side, Syria has played a largely positive role in Lebanon of late, has stepped up security cooperation with the United States along the Iraqi border, and seems to have repaired its fractured relationship with Saudi Arabia while building its friendship with Turkey. These efforts can help offset Iranian influence in the region. The quid pro quos must continue to overcome the
recent legacy of mistrust on both sides.
Roger Cohen of the Washington Post writes that George Bush had asked Israel not to bomb Syria’s suspected nuclear reactor in 2007.
The Bush administration opposed the 2007 Israeli strike. It was worried the Syrians would respond and ignite a wider Middle East war. It believed tough U.S. diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, would ensure the Syrian reactor never became operational. President Bush’s line was: Let me handle it.
Ehud Olmert, then the Israeli prime minister, was disappointed at American inaction. His line was: It’s now in our hands. No U.S. green light was asked for, and none given, as Israel bombed.
The fallout was contained through sleight of hand. Israel feigned ignorance. A tight collar was placed for several months around U.S. intelligence. President Bashar al-Assad was not made to feel cornered. It was as if the reactor had gone poof in the night.
Could Iran’s Natanz plant go poof in the night? Some people are thinking about it, an attack from “nowhere.” I think those are dangerous thoughts. Iran is not Syria.
The Obama-Netanyahu statement said: “The president told the prime minister he recognizes that Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats, and that only Israel can determine its security needs.”
Is that plain language or a hall of mirrors?
Syria earns the dubious distinction of being the worst performing country vis-à-vis anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms since Global Integrity conducted its first national assessments nearly a decade ago.
Corruption as a Political Strategy
By Haidara Abboud in Global Integrity Report
The 2009 arrest of Brigadier General Hassan Makhlouf, who as head of the Syrian Customs Administration was responsible for fighting corruption, came as a double shock to Syrians. The arrest of a high-ranking official is not an unusual occurrence in Syria, as it happens from time to time. In fact, several ministers and a deputy prime minister have been arrested. Former Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoubi committed suicide in 2000 when police came to his house to issue a judicial notice asking him to appear before a judge to respond to allegations of corruption. All those arrested, however, are usually released after a limited time in prison.
What was new and shocking about Makhlouf’s case is the sheer size of the alleged corruption. Media reports estimate that the value of the cash and properties seized in the case at millions of dollars. This includes 137 properties owned by Makhlouf or a member of his family. A single room at his villa is alleged to have been filled with cash. Authorities suspect that he ordered border roads to be left unguarded during certain times to allow smugglers driving trucks full of merchandise to enter the country without paying customs. Despite his February 2009 arrest, he has not been tried in court as of May 2010 and has not made any public statement about the case.
There were even more shocking stories. According to reports by the Kuwaiti daily Alrai, Makhlouf permitted the entry of certain foreign vehicles in the belief that they were transporting food, but they were actually transporting equipment to be used in the assassination of a Hezbollah officer in Syria, Imad Mughniyah (who was assassinated in February 2008). The Syrian government allegedly considered the mistake to be a breach of national security, and it was thought by many that had Makhlouf not allowed this breach to occur, he would have probably been able to continue in his job for many more years.
The Makhlouf case contributes to a popular belief in Syria that corruption is only forbidden if it conflicts with national security needs. Aside from that, everything else is permitted as long as it is done in an “orderly” manner. This attitude leads to rampant corruption throughout Syria and its institutions.
Many Syrians believe that corruption is intentionally allowed to spread through all segments of society, in public and private institutions, in civil society organizations and even in religious institutions, as a political strategy to prevent the emergence of a credible and respected opposition to the current regime….
The case of Maen Akel, a journalist for Al-Thawra, is a clear example of what can happen to journalists who try to dig deeper. He was finishing an investigative report about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry in Syria when security forces arrested him at his office in November 2009 and confiscated all his documents. Though he was not working on a political story, he was held for three months by security forces without an arrest warrant. Nor was he brought to court to face specific charges. He was expelled from his job without being given a reason, which is contrary to the rules of the law. It also was suggested that he never work in journalism again.
Many believe that only when all the public figures have been corrupted would political activities be encouraged and a law for political parties would be passed. Then, a “corruption file” for everyone will be available to be used against anyone who is “crossing the line,” with the result that they will be expelled from participation in the political sphere. Besides, special benefits are always a powerful tool to buy the elite’s loyalty to the ruling party.
The United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States said Tuesday that the benefits of bombing Iran’s nuclear program outweigh the short-term costs such an attack would impose….. “I think it’s a cost-benefit analysis,” Mr. al-Otaiba said. “I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion … there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what.” “If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?,…
John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the comments reflect the views of many Arab states in the Persian Gulf region that “recognize the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
Assistant minister says earlier comments by envoy appearing to back a military strike were taken out of context.
UAE ambassador confirms: Palestine is the core issue
by Paul Woodward on July 8, 2010
This is the key section of the interview — the part Goldberg ignored, as did his friend Eli Lake at the Washington Times, when pumping out this week’s rendition of Israel’s Arabs-united-against-Iran narrative. Here the ambassador makes it clear that the only significant leverage Obama has on the issue of Iran is to push hard for the creation of a Palestinian state….
OTAIBA: For him to really make progress on the Iran issue and to deal with extremism and to deal with terrorism in the region, to deal with radicalized home-grown terrorism in the U.S., you need to address the peace process. That is the one core issue everyone tends to blame, and that’s what the people hang all their problems on.
Well, the Palestinians are, you know, they are — they don’t have a country, they are abused, they are oppressed, and the U.S. always sides with Israel. So the sooner U.S. appears to be objective and impartial and create a Palestinian state, we take that argument away from everyone, and that is in everyone’s best interest….
Iran MP Slams U.A.E. Envoy Remarks, Says Tours May Be Suspended 2010-07-07
By Ali Sheikholeslami
July 7 (Bloomberg) — Iran may bar trips to the United Arab Emirates after the U.A.E.’s envoy to the U.S. said his country supports military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I hope the government of the U.A.E. will correct this viewpoint,” said Kazem Jalali… The U.A.E.’s central bank asked financial institutions in the federation to freeze 41 bank accounts of Iranian individuals and companies in compliance with United Nations Security Council sanctions passed on June 9,
Syria’s attack on gay people must end
Dan Littauer, Guardian
The crackdown on homosexuality in Syria is not about public safety, as claimed. It is a serious breach of human rights.
Since late March, police have conducted a series of raids on private parties and meeting places, and more than 25 men have been arrested. The arrests are shrouded in secrecy but some information has leaked out. Since late March, police have conducted a series of raids on private parties and meeting places, and more than 25 men have been arrested. The arrests are shrouded in secrecy but some information has leaked out.
At the Gay Middle East news website (GME) we have received several testimonies and published two reports from undercover sources in Damascus. In Beirut, Georges Azzi of Helem (the first LGBT advocacy group in an Arab country) confirms that arrests are taking place but says: “Unfortunately none of our contacts can give us more details at this point. It seems that the police are tracking gay people in Syria now.”