“No longer the pariah President,” by Peter Beaumont

No longer the pariah President - Bashar al-Assad - profile/Peter Beaumont

No longer the pariah President - Bashar al-Assad - profile/Peter Beaumont

No longer the pariah President
Peter Beaumont
guardian.co.uk, Sunday November 16 2008
The Observer, Sunday November 16 2008

David Miliband’s visit to Damascus this week indicates the new thaw in the West’s relationship with Syria. But while the leader’s charming wife boosts his carefully managed image, doubts remain about a much darker side.

Bashar Assad, President of Syria, is good at the people stuff. He pops his head around the door during an interview with his wife, then, all arms and legs, ushers you away, unexpectedly, for an informal chat. He talks smartly and engagingly. He talks about the prospects for peace with Israel. The dangers of the ‘War on Terror’. Relations with an increasingly bellicose US.

That was five years ago. Since then others have visited and drunk his coffee out of tiny bone-china cups in a palace largely used for ceremonial meetings, and got the same treatment. By and large they have emerged charmed by the gawky Assad and by his English-born wife Asma. And not a little baffled.

Forty-three-year-old Bashar Assad gives good interview. In such encounters over the years he has emerged as self-deprecating, thoughtful and concerned. Which leaves the conundrum over Bashar Assad and his Syria: which is how to square this carefully managed image, designed for media and diplomats, with the allegations that have been levelled against the police state he rules?

Since coming to power on the promise of reforming the paranoid state overseen by his father, Bashar Assad’s regime has been blamed for the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bomb – which he denies. He has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to set up bases on his territory for fighters heading across the border, resulting in last month’s cross-border raid into Syria to attack one such safe house – also denied, but increasingly less plausibly. Syria has been charged, too, with assisting the re-arming of Hizbollah after the 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon – which it does not dispute – and accused of setting up a joint project with North Korea to construct a secret nuclear reactor, subsequently bombed by Israel, which it still does.

It is a moot point, however, just how clumsy Syria has been – despite its designation in 2002 as being one of the second wave of Axis of Evil states, a powerful irritant for Bashar. For amid a sudden thawing of relations with Syria that will see Foreign Secretary David Miliband meet Bashar in Damascus this week – having already been courted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy – Syria will argue that far from having to move in its positions, what it always predicted has come true. As the ‘War on Terror’ has faltered, and the George W Bush era wound down, the world has been forced to turn back to Syria – and not vice versa. Back to a country where secret policeman follow you or stand watching at the street corners; and where as recently as last month the regime sentenced a dozen democracy activists to two and a half years in prison.

Yet the disconnect between the two Bashars remains, demanding an answer to the question – who is the real Bashar? Is he the accessible and visible President with his pretty young wife, who goes to the theatre, opera and cinema, in contrast with a father rarely seen outside of official events? Who dines in the restaurants of Damascus with his family and likes music and would like, as he once said, to improve his people’s lives with ‘the tool of democracy’? Or is he his father’s son: a leader surrounded by a tiny circle of family advisers – including his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, husband of his elder sister Bushra – who is ruthless and astute, a great dissimulator capable of playing, and winning, a long game?

The reality is that there are no easy answers in a state that remains so secretive, and where the centre of power is so remote for most, confined to a handful of people. The result is that the majority of efforts at assessing the character of Bashar Assad – and his country’s trajectory – have devolved into a kind of Syrian-style ‘Kremlinology’, as much based on inference as hard facts based on a solid knowledge of the man. Emerging from this fog have been theories – one of which claims that Bushra and Asef Shawkat are the real powers in Damascus.

‘I think if you look at Bashar’s situation, he has inherited a lot of baggage from his father, Hafez,’ says one person who has worked with the family since not long after Bashar came to power, who is sympathetic to Bashar ‘irrespective of the dark recesses’. ‘I believe that what he has been trying to do is legitimise his presidency, not simply rely on what his father put in motion. I think he is playing a long game – and I do believe he can conceive of a future where he is no longer in power.’

But to what end? ‘If you look at what the First Lady is trying to do [in her social activism],’ he adds, ‘she makes it clear that it is in pursuit of the President’s vision. The problem is that no one knows precisely what that vision is.’

So it is most often to his father that Bashar is inevitably compared in attempting to understand the paradox of his rule. Thirty years in power, Hafez Assad built up a cult of personality around his rule that stood atop layers of loyalties constructed in the state’s rival centres of power. Brutal when it was required – not least in the slaughter of up to 20,000 during the Islamist uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in the city of Hama – Hafez was also capable of a far more nuanced authoritarianism than neighbouring Iraq under Saddam, carefully sidelining threats to his rule.

With the death of his brother Basil in 1994, it was Bashar – who had trained to be an opthamologist in London, where he perfected his excellent English – who became his father’s political heir. What followed Hafez’s death in 2000 was a seamless transition that has been described as marking the emergence of the ‘first Arab republican hereditary regime’. The Damascus Spring that came after his confirmation as President by referendum was a short-lived experiment, the highpoint of which was the shutting down of Mezze prison and the release of hundreds of political prisoners. All that remains from those days is his request that the media not call him ‘immortal leader’.

But whether or not Bashar was serious in talking of liberalising Syria, the circumstances of his coming to power – shortly before 9/11 and the start of the ‘War on Terror’ – has been defining his rule so far. It was a conflict, he accurately predicted to The Observer a few months before the invasion of Iraq, that would lead to a quick victory in the first instance but subsequent chaos. Even Bashar could not have predicted the huge flow of Iraqi refugees that would head for his country, fleeing the consequences of the US war with the insurgency and sectarian violence. Since then Bashar has charted an oddly seesawing relationship with the US. He made Syria’s prisons available for torture of terrorist suspects at America’s behest – until the invasion of Iraq, that is – then with that war, flip-flopped.

The explanation is as much about how Syria sees itself as it is about Bashar. Despite its history of impoverishment, it conceives itself as an important regional player. It hosts Hamas and other anti-Israeli groups’ offices as much to remind the world that peace with Israel is impossible while Syria is ignored. Its own history of long being interfered in by its Arab neighbours, prior to Hafez’s rise, has resulted in a policy of interference in its neighbours’ affairs – including allegations that jihadis returning from the war in Iraq are targeted by Syria’s intelligence services as assets, before being allowed to return.

Syria also – encouraged by Bashar – sees itself as the ‘capital of Arab resistance’. According to Abdel Halim Khaddam, Syria’s former Vice President, now involved with the opposition National Salvation Front, who was recently interviewed in Brussels for the New Republic, it is an issue of national cohesion. ‘Fighting the Americans in Iraq is very dangerous. But it also makes Bashar popular. Under the banner of resistance, anything is popular.’

The necessity of such a policy – as well as the equally popular financial and logistical support for Hizbollah in the Israeli-Lebanon war of 2006 – is the existence of a fundamental contradiction in Bashar’s expressed but little acted on desires for an economically and politically reformed Syria, a consequence of which some believe would be the collapse of his regime, dominated as it is by the minority Alawite Shia sub-sect.

Reem Alaf, an associate fellow at Chatham House – and Syrian herself – believes that the result of the latest diplomacy to engage with Syria has been that Assad’s strategy has been shown to have worked in the long run. And while she believes that many Syrians are unhappy because Bashar Assad did not turn out to be more like King Abdullah of Jordan or President Mubarak of Egypt, Bashar is able to tap into a popularity born from a coincidence of agendas. ‘Syria is unique because both the regime and the people are concerned with the same issues: they agree over the Arab-Israeli conflict; they agree in supporting the Palestinians; they agree over the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq. I don’t know how you measure popularity, but in that sense he is supported.’

She is dubious, too, about the claims that others are more powerful than Bashar. ‘He runs everything, although there is not one person in charge for everything within his circle. It is one for all. There is no weak link.’

The Assad Lowdown

Born: Bashar Assad, 11 September 1965, in Damascus.

Best of times: Marriage to Asma (Emma) Akhras and birth of his three children. He has made a point of building up his wife’s social projects – particularly with the young – as a foil for criticism of the regime, with her role modelled on those of the First Ladies of Jordan and Morocco.

Worst of times: The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, in which his circle was accused of complicity. Bashar Assad himself twice refused to be interviewed in the subsequent UN investigation before finally complying, and has denied involvement. The murder led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops and agents from neighbouring Lebanon, following international pressure.

What he says: ‘When our interests have matched, the Americans have been good to us. When the interests have differed, they wanted us to mould ourselves to them, which we refused.’

What others say: ‘If we do not talk with [Bashar] Assad, there will not be peace in the Middle East.’ President Nicolas Sarkozy to President Shimon Peres during a visit to Israel.

The Times (GB): Barack Obama links Israel peace plan to 1967…
2008-11-16 05:23:17.340 GMT

……Peres was loudly applauded for telling King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was behind the original initiative: “I wish that your voice will become the prevailing voice of the whole region, of all people.”

A bipartisan group of senior foreign policy advisers urged Obama to give the Arab plan top priority immediately after his election victory. They included Lee Hamilton, the former co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Democrat former national security adviser. Brzezinski will give an address tomorrow at Chatham House, the international relations think tank, in London.

Brent Scowcroft, a Republican former national security adviser, joined in the appeal. He said last week that the Middle East was the most troublesome area in the world and that an early start to the Palestinian peace process was “a way to psychologically change the mood of the region”.

Advisers believe the diplomatic climate favours a deal as Arab League countries are under pressure from radical Islamic movements and a potentially nuclear Iran. Polls show that Palestinians and Israelis are in a mood to compromise.

The advisers have told Obama he should lose no time in pursuing the policy in the first six to 12 months in office while he enjoys maximum goodwill.

Obama is also looking to break a diplomatic deadlock over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology. A possible way forward, suggested last spring by Dennis Ross, a senior Obama adviser and former Middle East envoy, would be to persuade Russia to join in tough economic sanctions against Iran by offering to modify the US plan for a “missile shield” in eastern Europe.

President Dmitry Medvedev signalled that Russia could cancel a tit-for-tat deployment of missiles close to the Polish border if America gave up its proposed missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Ross argued in a paper on How to Talk to Iran that “if the Iranian threat goes away, so does the principal need to deploy these [antimissile] forces. [Vladimir] Putin [the Russian prime minister] has made this such a symbolic issue that this trade-off could be portrayed as a great victory for him”.

Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, accompanied Obama on a visit to Israel last July. They also travelled to Ramallah, where Obama questioned Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, about the prospects for the Arab plan.

According to a Washington source Obama told Abbas: “The Israelis would be crazy not to accept this initiative. It would give them peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.”

Kurtzer submitted a paper to Obama on the question before this month’s presidential elections. He argued that trying to reach bilateral peace agreements between Israel and individual countries in the Middle East, was a recipe for failure as the record of Bill Clinton and George W Bush showed. In contrast, the broader Arab plan “had a lot of appeal”. A leading Democratic expert on the Middle East said: “There’s not a lot of meat on the bones yet, but it offers recognition of Israel across the Arab world.”

Livni, the leader of Kadima, which favours the plan, is the front-runner in Israeli elections due in February. Her rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud, is adamantly against withdrawing to borders that predate the Six Day war in 1967.

Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, last week expressed his support for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank Golan and east Jerusalem.

Iraq assures Syria on US raids
Sat, 15 Nov 2008 02:30:12 GMT

Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari
Damascus has said that Baghdad in a message has assured Syria that US forces will not use Iraqi soil to carry out attacks into Syrian territory.

Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari said on Friday that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari delivered the message to Syrian President Bashar Assad at a meeting in Damascus this week.

Ja’afari said that Syria is still not satisfied by the “American promise that this aggression will not be repeated.”

On the 26 of October, US commandoes in four helicopters attacked the Syrian village of al-Sukkariya some eight kilometers from the Iraqi border at about 5:45 pm local time (1445 GMT). The assault, which was carried out from inside Iraq, took nine civilian lives and inflicted injuries upon 14 others.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also expressed in a report to the Security Council this week his “deep regret over the loss of civilian lives” because of the US attack on a house in the Syrian village of al- Sukkariya.

Comments (167)

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151. Shai said:


I believe Democracy is also, beyond the technical definition, a state-of-mind and a language. The Bush administration concentrated too much on the “process” definition, and thought that certainly processes can be implemented in any society, given enough resolve (especially on part of the implementor). But before this process can be installed in any system, first you must have the right state of mind, and the readiness to accept it. It is this, and the language, that first have to be learned, before the “user’s manual” can be handed out.

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November 20th, 2008, 7:31 am


152. jad said:

Dear OTW, my rich friend 😉
Small comment about your example of religion and the president in Syria;
long time ago, I had a Syrian friend who loved to mention to our western friends that Syria had a Christian prime minister, for him it meant a lot since he wasn’t Christian, for him it was his prove that we in Syria don’t care about religion and we are equal but the funny thing happened when a French girl asked him if we had any Christian president in Syria and his answer was ‘ no no, it’s unconstitutional’ For me it was kind of laughable and interesting to hear that conversation knowing that he doesn’t see any contradiction of what he was talking about but the opposite he always thought that it’s ok for the PM to be any religion he wants but the president should be a Muslim otherwise he will be unfair to others??
I can understand where he is coming from but It’s always make you think what is the significant different in president religion can do to me as a Syrian citizen? NOTHING, in my humble point of view
I’m writing you this story to prove your point that religion is another barrier we need to pass if we want to develop.
A small observation about the ‘unique’ issue you wrote, I’ll call it the ‘unique factor’ , the mystery of that factor is that we use this word ‘unique’ so much that we strongly believe it now and it’s in our media as a ‘fact’ not a ‘myth’

‘At its heart, democracy is not the laws themselves, it is the process by which laws are made and enforced.’
Kudos OTW


The middle class task is huge (or what left of the middle class), that need lots of work…maybe during the coming weekend we can try to discuss about that…
Good night

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November 20th, 2008, 8:09 am


153. jad said:

Dear Shai,
What are you talking about? WE ARE UNIQUE, we don’t use the west democracy WE CREAT OUR OWN..

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November 20th, 2008, 8:18 am


154. Shai said:


That’s ok, I have yet to see two identical systems of democracy. But my strong belief is, that it is much more than a process, or a system. It is, as I’ve said, a language and a state-of-mind. And for a people that have never had, for thousands of years, even the most remote conditions for beginning to create and adopt these, it is not going to be a matter of a few years. The only reason Jews were able to “speak that language”, is because many of them came from nations that already knew and spoke them. Nearly twenty years after the fall of communism, most Russians today still barely understand the concepts of democracy, so we expect people in our region to?

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November 20th, 2008, 8:35 am


155. Off the Wall said:

Dear Shai

I Could not agree more. Perhaps an example of the state of mind would be a citizen refusing to go the easy way by not bribing an official. As for language, the development of democratic language requires first and foremost, freedom of the press. That does not mean that the language of discourse will be polite, far from it, but the practice of reading and allowing others’ points of view is the key. The task for Syrian reformers is very hard. How can one expect even to develop the language of democracy if one is isolated from even harmless websites simply because they may contain a semblance of criticism. Or they may paint a picture of the enemy as less than a horrific monster.

Yet, if the process is built in fair manner, and if guards and checks and balances are established and enshrined, developing the state of mind and language can become easier. The process, state of mind, and language are inextricably linked. Some Syrians, who are now in their 70s and 80s lived during a time when the state of mind, language, and process of democracy were operative. They have been talking about these to their children and grand children, who even cynical and ambivalent, would retain the notion. This is how I learned about these time from the oral “un-official” history. The father of a friend of mine was a leader in an old elitist regional political party, and he was elected several times as MP. I did not agree with his political view, nor with the tactics of his party, but until his death, when we were in 11’th grade, sitting in his presence for hours as he told stories described the lively democracy, with its backstabbers, ideologues, and parliamentary maneuvers represented some of the most memorable moments. I now feel so dumb for not having archived his stories, even on a tape. That would have been an interesting document to hand to Joshua. Syrians had experience with democracy, the problem I fear is that the generation who lived that experience may soon die out. Granted, there were election tampering, especially in rural and tribal areas, but overall, the system functioned well enough.

Dear Jad
Thank you for the story. I liked it a lot, especially the “it is unconstitutional” part. I could hear your friend saying that so naturally, without even recognizing the irony.

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November 20th, 2008, 9:24 am


156. norman said:

i agree with you , sometime i think that part of the training that our children get in the US is what they learn about government and , about the chance to run for best dressed or most likely to succeed , they all teach to accept defeat and live with it and try again and that is something hard to find in Syria and other Arab countries , even in Lebanon , they could not cooperate and accept the results of the election and try to do good for the people,
For the above reasons i believe that economic freedom and prosperity should be the priority .

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November 21st, 2008, 4:01 am


157. Shai said:


I hate to tell you this, but Bibi Netanyahu’s newest thing (agenda) is going to be exactly that… “economic prosperity first…” In reference to peace, that is. He doesn’t want to talk to the Palestinian leadership, because it can’t deliver whatever agreement could be reached with it, so instead he wants to re-ignite both economies for the betterment of both people. Kind of hard to argue with that, no? Personally, I think progress on the Palestinian front is now on hold, until two things happen – first, Israel MUST end the blockade of Gaza and its collective punishment of 1.5 million people, and the Hamas MUST come to recognize that he has to speak to those land-grabbing Zionist leaders. As long as neither side is ready to recognize the other, nothing will happen, except for more misery, for the Palestinians of course. The innocent civilians are paying the price, as always.

But I am hoping that Bibi will make progress along the more reasonable track, namely the Syrian one. Here, there is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t move forward. The 4 meetings we had in the past 6 months have turned out far better than anyone could have expected, and this is the impression given by both sides. I’ve heard, that if all the principles that were agreed upon in those meetings were fully exposed to the Israeli public tomorrow morning, we’d all be shocked, for the better. So now the question is whether the next PM (probably Bibi) will pick up where Olmert left off. My guess, is that from the outside, it’ll seem like he won’t (his rhetoric in the upcoming elections campaign, etc.), but quietly behind the scenes, he’ll do exactly that. Just as he did in August of 1998.

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November 21st, 2008, 6:17 am


158. jad said:

Dear OTW
How is your vacation so far?
I hope your yacht sailing to your Caribbean estate went safe and smooth.
Looking forward to read your comments when you get back 😉

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November 21st, 2008, 6:40 pm


159. norman said:


you do not have to hate to tell me as i always said and i want to repeat that Israel will be better off if it can show the Palestinians that it cares , so if Netanyahu will lift the sanction and the blockade on Gaza the Palestinians will feel that and will respond positivly , the only i see there for peace is to make it worthwhile for the Palestinians to have peace , only then personal ownership will be more important than collective ownership and at that time the fence between people houses will be more important than the border of their countries.

And that is my take,

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November 21st, 2008, 10:12 pm


160. jad said:

Dear Alia, OTW, Offended, Trustquest, Norman, all….

As we discussed before, I think we need to have some exchange about the middle class Syrians.
What we want for the future, what are our fears, our hopes, our duties, how can we help as the remaining middle class and how can we stop it from disappearing.

Any questions, ideas, suggestions or stories that we can share and discuss would be a great start.

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November 22nd, 2008, 7:12 pm


161. Shai said:


I agree with you. But, like JAD, I am also curious about the new ending “And that is my take…” – it’s a great one, but it sounds like you’re a famous radio broadcaster… Is there something we should know, Norman? 🙂 (I do like it…)

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November 22nd, 2008, 7:19 pm


162. norman said:

Jad, Shai,

I am an Oncologist ,Cancer DR ,
I am just trying to get your attention,

And that is my take,

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November 22nd, 2008, 7:30 pm


163. Shai said:


You ALWAYS have our attention, you know that! But be honest, do you also end all patient diagnoses with that sentence? 🙂 (Btw, it’s a nice ending, because it does project humility. You’re not claiming you KNOW the truth, you’re simply saying this is how you see it… That’s why I like it.)

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November 22nd, 2008, 7:33 pm


164. norman said:


I say something similar , Like , this the way i would do it and the way i would do for my mother,

Shai, do you thing i should patten it.I mean the sentence,

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November 22nd, 2008, 8:02 pm


165. Shai said:


Back in 2005, I thought I had the best sentence… It was: “Once you go Mac, you never go back.” Friends told me to quickly patent it so, foolishly, I researched it. Only to find out… that of course it had been used by many before me… 🙂

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November 22nd, 2008, 8:21 pm


166. jad said:

TELL US THE REAL STORY, what is behind the sentence, Shai is being polite by not pushing you, I’m not letting it go that easily.
There must be a conspiracy or something that made you use that sentence…

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November 22nd, 2008, 8:41 pm


167. norman said:


You got me , It is a way to let my sect know who i am.

And that is my take.

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November 22nd, 2008, 11:31 pm


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