Posted by Joshua on Sunday, November 16th, 2008
No longer the pariah President
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 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.