Advancing a Free Society

Beyond the Legend of Syria’s Moderation

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Consider this exchange between the Atlantic Monthly’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the regime of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad: - Would you be sad if his regime disappeared? - It depends on what replaces it.

By the time this answer was being provided, the Syrian regime was engaged in a full-scale assault against the Syrian people. No less than a thousand people had been killed, their sin is their desire to see the reform of this brutal tyranny and kleptocracy. Perhaps 10,000 people had been rounded up, in an indiscriminate search and seizure of males between the ages of 15 and 60. There was no sentimentalism or apology here, the man at the helm, the House of Assad around him, the intelligence barons and brigade commanders, had signaled in word and deed that they had no intention of relinquishing – or even sharing – power. The masks had fallen. The young ruler who had peddled the myth of his moderation was in every way his father’s son. More troubling still was the possibility that this inheritor was more brutal than his father, if only because he lacked the Old Man’s touch and authority. The regime’s strategy in the face of the upheaval that made its way to Syria was a massive crackdown: turn the lights off, keep the foreign press at bay, let the reporters file their dispatches from neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, unleash the killer brigades of the regime – the deadliest is led by the ruler’s cruel younger brother Maher – and ride out the storm. The outside world be damned, it will impose meaningless sanctions, but these powers beyond will have no choice but to keep their Damascus ties intact.

The response of Secretary Clinton, it must be conceded, bears out the cynicism of the Syrian rulers. Contrast the isolation of the Libyan regime with the running room of its counterpart in Damascus, and there on display is the power of a big idea that has been of immense utility to the Syrians for well over four decades now. Syria is indispensable to war and peace in the region, the legend has it. It is the swing state, straddling the fence between the forces of order on the one side, and the radicals (Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas) on the other. One more round of diplomacy, an additional range of inducements, a more supple diplomacy, and the promise of “engagement” would do the trick. The Obama diplomacy rested on that promise. So did the ardent courting of the Damascus regime by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, John F. Kerry, who became convinced that he had found the wellsprings of Bashar al-Assad’s moderation.

The harsh truth of this struggle in Syria is the solitude of the Syrian people. They fight alone. The silence of the Arab League – again the contrast with Libya is instructive, for the Arab states were willing to break with the renegade ruler in Tripoli – is a stain on the honor of that organization, so is the unwillingness of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to embrace the cause of Syria’s dissidents. Russia which winked at the international effort against Libya and gave it cover at the United Nations Security Council has made it abundantly clear that it will not cast the Syrians adrift. The Russian claim is that the Syrian opposition is not a peaceful movement but an armed insurrection. This is the way the Syrian rulers have pitched their cause. In their telling, they are a secular regime that rests on the consent of Syria’s patchwork of minorities – Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and Kurds – against an Islamist opposition drawn from the majority of Syria’s population, the Sunnis. The regime knows no other ideological claim. Its opposition at home, so the justification goes, is a bigoted fundamentalist opposition, and better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

A pillar of this regime, and a symbol of the nexus between economic plunder and political power, the ruler’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, stripped away all illusion in a recent set of blunt remarks to a New York Times reporter, Anthony Shadid. The regime, he said, will fight to the finish, and will overwhelm this rebellion. There would be no peace, he said, for Syria’s neighbors, Israel included, unless there was peace for the regime in Damascus. Makhlouf is the “bag man” of the regime, his business interests dominate Syria’s rigged economy. He is on the list of 13 functionaries of the regime sanctioned by the European Union. Now both the regime and the Syrian people have taken measure of one another. The Syrians know beyond the shadow of doubt the stuff of which their ruling cabal – and their president – are made. And the rulers have looked in wonder as unarmed young people have braved armor and tanks in the hope that can break out of the grip of this monstrous regime.

(photo credit: PanARMENIAN Photo)