Barry Rubin. The Truth about Syria. Palgrave Macmillan. 304 pages. $24.95
“The age of illusions is over,” the historian Walter Laqueur wrote recently, referring to the illusions the West continues to entertain about the confrontation with radical Islam. Needless to say, Laqueur did not mean that we in the West no longer have any illusions on this subject; those still abound. He meant, rather, that we can no longer afford to harbor them and that the time has come to shed them. Yet human beings have great difficulty in freeing themselves from illusions — even quite dangerous ones — as long as they offer comfort and provide peace of mind. The best place to start the freeing process is by heeding those who are willing to tell us disturbing truths. Barry Rubin, the distinguished scholar of the Middle East, falls into this tiny minority. His brilliant and provocative new book, The Truth about Syria, not only challenges the illusions of those naturally inclined to prefer lovely daydream over harsh reality; it also challenges the illusions of those in the West who, by their own definition, are hard-nosed realists and wily pragmatists.
Consider the case of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendation that the United States engage Syria in an attempt to bring stability and peace to post-Saddam Iraq. The authors of the report included James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, each of whom had served as Secretary of State during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Both are generally known for being tough pragmatists, the kind of men one bets would be good poker players even among the toughest competitors in the game. Indeed, the members of the Study Group might be said to represent our contemporary version of the famous “wise men” who guided us through the Cold War with signal success; and if we were still in the midst of the Cold War, we could perhaps sleep more easily at night knowing that the fate of the West was in such shrewd and prudent hands. But today the challenge is radically different. We are not confronting another great superpower in the poker-like game called the balance of power, and even our wisest wise men have yet to grasp that they are currently playing a game about whose rules they have no clue.
In The Truth about Syria, Rubin attempts to grasp the nature of the rules by which our opponents are playing. The critical importance of this task cannot be overestimated. In geopolitics, as in poker, the party playing a game whose rules he does not fully understand will be at a distinct disadvantage. A novice at poker who thinks diamonds beat spades will be led sooner or later into making a disastrous mistake. The novice player may learn from his mistakes, but only because he is prepared to recognize that he hasn’t quite grasped the rules. Our “wise men” of today have not yet recognized that they are playing a game at which they are not even novices — a game the other party has invented and, worse, rigged in its own favor.
Rubin’s fascinating and often mordant book aims to overcome the cognitive asymmetry between West and anti-West by presenting an objective analysis of the very different rules by which our geopolitical opponents are operating, and to make it clear to the Western reader why they have different rules from us. It is not because they are ignorant of our rules, and need only to be enlightened about them. They are perfectly aware how our rules work, as Rubin insists. Indeed, it is through their intimate familiarity with our rules that they have been able repeatedly to predict how we will react to their moves — an ability that has allowed them to outwit and outfox us over and over again.
Such a situation might be dubbed cognitively asymmetrical, on the analogy of asymmetrical warfare. A grandmaster in chess playing against a patzer is an example of cognitive asymmetry; so too is a poker sharp playing against an amateur whose face reveals his hand. In both cases, the master player can see what his amateurish opponent will do next, but the amateurish opponent cannot see what the master player has up his sleeves. Hence the master player always holds the advantage. The amateur may begin with a much bigger bank, and hold better cards than the master player, but he is always bound to lose in the long run.
This advantage will be especially great if the master player has the virtue that the Arabs call sumud — steadfastness: the patience to wait as long as it takes to wear down his opponent until he is ready to abandon the game. Sumud yields policymaking in terms of generations and even centuries, whereas Western foreign policy, like Western culture in general, is always looking for a quick fix. We want to make a deal now, and we will settle for less; they want exactly what they want, and they are willing to wait the time it takes to get it, which turns out to be exactly the amount of time it takes for their opponents to throw up their hands in despair.
Taken together, sumud and the cognitive asymmetry between Syria and the West explain one of the central paradoxes of Rubin’s book: How can an economically stagnant and militarily weak nation like Syria get away with murder, both figuratively and literally?
In February 2005, Syria masterminded the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, former Prime Minister of neighboring Lebanon — not just the murder of a single individual, but, in effect, an attack on a sovereign nation. In 2006, Syria provided rockets and other arms to Hezbollah to aid it in its war with Israel. After the American and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rubin writes that “from the U.S. standpoint, Syria took the enemy side by smuggling military equipment into Iraq (including night-vision goggles) and letting wanted Iraqi officials, millions of dollars of Saddam’s money, and possibly some equipment for the production of weapons of mass destruction cross the border into safe haven in Syria. In addition, after the defeat of the Saddam regime, an insurgency began that depended largely on Syria as a rear area. Pro-Saddam officials there used smuggled money to finance and direct a war against coalition forces as well as the Shia-Kurdish majority. Terrorists from abroad or Syrians themselves were trained, armed, and dispatched into Iraq.”
How did America respond to Syria’s sponsorship of terrorists who killed hundreds of American soldiers and thousand of Iraqis? In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad had already lied to Powell once, in 2001, telling him that Syria had cut off the Iraqi oil pipeline. Powell later saw that he had been hoodwinked. On the airplane taking him to his 2003 visit, the secretary of state “insisted . . . that he . . . would not be fooled again. Shortly after he landed, however, Bashar again sold him the same old swampland by falsely telling Powell that the terrorist offices in Damascus had already been closed down, good news that the secretary of state announced to the American reporters accompanying him. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent, in the most humiliating way for Powell, that he had been taken in once more. Reporters simply telephoned the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and found that they were still open for business as usual.” In short, as Rubin trenchantly puts it, “Syria was making a fool out of the U.S. government and the Bush administration was helping it to do so.”
Our “wise men” of today have not yet recognized that they are playing a game at which they are not even novices — a game the other party has invented and, worse, rigged in its own favor.
Rubin offers another striking example of this cognitive asymmetry. In September 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trip to Syria to visit its president (and Bashar’s father), Hafiz al-Assad. Baker had prepared his case well. He presented detailed evidence that Syria had been sponsoring quite an impressive list of terrorist activities by means of surrogate agencies. Syria had denied all involvement with terrorism, and Baker was, in effect, calling Hafiz’ bluff. By Baker’s own standards it was a tough act, like that of a criminal investigator who spreads out on a table the hard and irrefutable evidence he has gathered against a suspect, and says: Deny that! Yet his confrontation with Assad had no effect. Or, rather, it had an effect, but one that Baker did not see coming. After the meeting, Rubin writes, “Hafiz did take action: He had the three Jordanian agents who supplied the information tracked down and killed.” The upshot was that “Syria kept on fomenting terrorism; and the United States did very little in retaliation.” Baker had thought he and Hafiz Assad were playing by the same rule book. They weren’t. But Hafiz had the immense advantage of knowing this, which Baker did not.
“But it gets even better,” Rubin says. “Precisely sixteen years later, after his betrayal by Hafiz, the White House asked Baker to recommend what policy the United States should take on Iraq and the Middle East in general. In explaining why he favored dialogue with Syria, Baker recalled the ‘success’ of his 1990 talks with Hafiz in supposedly getting Syria to stop sponsoring terrorism, ignoring the fact that it had continued to do so during that entire period.” In short, the recommendations to engage Syria offered by the Iraq Study Group were not made by men who lacked experience with Syria; they were made by men who simply had not learned from the experience they had. Their inability to acknowledge the rules by which Syria plays has led them repeatedly to believe that Syria is playing by their rules. Unable to put themselves into the position of the Syrian regime, they fail to see the logic and cogency of its behavior — behavior that in Western eyes so often seems infantile, counterproductive, or just plain irrational.
What makes The Truth about Syria invaluable is Rubin’s insider’s perspective on the Syrian regime: He is able to grasp Syria from the Syrian point of view, and to see our side from their side. This is not to say he is an admirer of the regime; on the contrary — he looks upon Syria as one of a “new breed of dictatorships” that “jeopardize the hope for a better future not only for the West but also for those unfortunate enough to live under their rule.” But Rubin is able to put himself inside the minds of those who have led the Syrian regime for the past three decades. Like a novelist, he knows how to bring his characters to life, to see the world as they see it, and feel it as they feel it. There are no cardboard villains in his book; cardboard villains can teach us nothing about the true nature of evil — only living characters can. Rubin brings Syria to life for us, and in so doing makes it absolutely clear why there can be no hope for reform of the Syrian regime and why no trust can be placed in it by the West.
Ironically, it is only by a genuinely sympathetic comprehension that we in the West can recognize why Syria must behave as a destabilizing force in the region and the world. Rubin offers us the tools for just such an understanding. To begin with, he says, the present regime cannot initiate genuine reform because it would not survive genuine reform. During the Cold War, as an ally and client of the ussr, Syria watched as the Soviet Union’s attempts to make reforms proved to be its own undoing. From this the Syrian regime concluded that it could not risk weakening itself by internal reforms. Yet this posed a serious domestic problem. Without improving the economic and political status of its people, how could Syria hope to survive in an age in which people want more, not less, prosperity and freedom? The solution to this problem lay literally next door. The threat of Israel had to become the focus of the Syrian people. If Israel didn’t exist, the old saying goes, it would have to be invented — and by the Arabs. The conflict with Zionism trumped the need for reform. When a nation is at war, when it is struggling for its own survival against a treacherous enemy, what could be more frivolous than seeking a higher gnp or asking for freedom of the press? Furthermore, in a state of war people need leaders who are strong, cunning, even brutal. In the epochal war with Zionism and its American ally, dictatorship is necessary, even if it must be handed down from father to son, as occurred in 2000 with the death of Hafiz and the assumption of his office by his son Bashar — a system Rubin refers to as “Dictator and Son, Inc.”
Rubin recounts that when power passed from father to son “Western observers thought Bashar was a jolly good fellow. . . . Officials and journalists who met him concluded that he was intelligent — which was true — but also that he was forward-looking and knowledgeable about Western ideas, which was false. In short, they were taken in completely. . . . Without doing anything; he was regarded with expectation and hope, another edition of the endless exercise of wishful thinking with which many in the West view the Middle East.” After all, Bashar was known to surf the Internet — and for many observers, that was enough to make him one of us.
Despite his seductive façade of Westernized modernity, it was Bashar who predicted “that Bush would fail in Iraq because he ‘does not understand that for Arabs honor is more important than anything else, even food.’” Rubin notes caustically that “Bashar’s dinner table is not noticeably bare because of this sense of priorities,” and then goes straight to what is perhaps the most unpleasant truth of all about Syria. Despite his flight of rhetoric, Bashar “is also correct and comprehends his people far better than do American policymakers. This passionate search for pride and revenge means that material benefits — high living standards, more rights, security from violence — can be trumped by religious and patriotic appeals.”
In order to survive, the regime is forced to keep up the state-of-war mentality, the thirst for revenge, the refusal to compromise with Israel or the West.
It is Bashar’s insight that permits us to grasp the great paradox of Syria: how a regime that has been such a marked failure when judged by the standards of the West can still manage to be “wildly popular at home and relatively influential abroad.” In order to survive, the regime is forced to keep up the state-of-war mentality, the thirst for revenge, the refusal to compromise with Israel or the West. But a regime that can be sustained only under these terms has no incentive to seek compromise, adjustments, or peace in the region. When you must have enemies, you will do whatever you need to do to keep them enemies. Thus the nature of the regime itself commits it to a pattern of intransigence, interference, and truculence. If it began playing by Western rules, it would cease to exist. As Rubin points out, collapse of the regime would not only leave its members without power and wealth; it might also leave them dangling from the wrong end of a rope — the fate of Saddam Hussein.
This, however, brings us to another paradox. Today, as Rubin points out, there are many in Syria who would normally be expected to oppose the regime. Yet they do not. On the contrary, they are its reluctant supporters. Their number includes businessmen, intellectuals, and other moderates, and the reason why they champion the current Syrian regime is because they are afraid of what might replace it if it were to collapse. Here, once again, Rubin is unflinchingly honest. He quotes at length the telling remarks of Muhammad Aziz Shukri of the University of Damascus: “The young in Syria, who have been exposed to the empty slogans of the Ba’ath Party, feel lost and without a path and this pushes them into the arms of fundamentalist Islam. Elections would create a confrontation between the Ba’ath Party and Islamic circles in Syria and one must ask what the result would be and what would happen afterwards.” The same situation, after all, led to a bloody civil war in Algeria, which could easily happen in Syria — a dire premonition that explains why even those who would normally wish for a more liberal government are terrified of rocking the boat. “An Islamist regime would mean a dim future for Syrian intellectuals, the sizable Christian minority, and more modern-oriented women, as well as an even more turbulent Middle East.” Small wonder a man like Shukri “would choose Bashar over some Syrian version of bin Laden or Khomeini.”
Writing in the midst of America’s unpopular occupation of Iraq, Rubin has no illusions about the possibility of “a regime change” in Syria imposed by the United States and its allies. No leader in the West wants another Iraq on his hands — one debacle per generation is enough. Furthermore, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was not “wildly popular” at home, the way, he says, that of Syria is. In Iraq, the Shi’ites and Kurds could be counted upon to support the removal of Saddam Hussein, even if they did not always support those who brought it about. But the same situation does not hold in Syria. Any attempt at regime change would simply confirm the Sorelian myth from which the Ba’athist regime still draws its enthusiastic support: It would prove that the U.S. and the West posed an existential threat to the Arab world, and that the regime’s doctrine of the permanent state of war was sound and realistic policy. In short, regime change in Syria would backfire far worse than it has in Iraq — and that is in no one’s interest, especially not the West’s.
In consequence, the West, strangely enough, finds itself very much in the position of those moderates like Muhammad Aziz Shukri. Yes, we know that the Syrian regime runs counter to the economic and political interests of the people of Syria. We know that the old secular Ba’athist spirit is dead and that there is virtually no chance of its revival. We know that even if it could be revived, it would lie like a dead weight upon the nation. Originally inspired by Stalinism, the Ba’ath party can no longer afford even to maintain its secular militancy. Where once the Ba’athists had gone into the streets and ripped the veils from the faces of pious Muslim females, “in 2003, the Syrian government changed regulations to let soldiers pray while on army bases, a step that could increase Islamist influence in the military, and allow women students to wear head scarves in the schools,” a practice which had earlier been forbidden. Indeed, as Rubin says, “the Syrian regime is no longer a secular government fighting Islamism but rather the main Arab state promoting it. The dictatorship shed its leftism in the 1970s and its secularism under Bashar.” But if the dictatorship has moved to accommodate Islamism due to popular pressure, what forces could resist such pressure in a genuinely popular democracy? For many Syrian moderates, the Western push for democracy seems more like an invitation to a beheading than the march of progress.
In the nineteenth century, advanced liberal societies like England and France were determined to support the decrepit and crumbling Ottoman Empire against the Russians, leading to the Crimean War. Their support did not arise out of any deep admiration for the liberal institutions of the Ottoman Empire, since it had none. Instead, their support was based on a frank fear of what would happen if the Ottoman Empire collapsed. “Better the devil you know” was the maxim adopted in this case; and those who seek at all cost to keep the world stable invariably follow this maxim, even if it means defending the indefensible. Syria under Hafiz, secular and opposed to Islamism, could plausibly be defended on this principle in a world in which the threat of radical Islam was causing increasing uncertainty, unpredictability, and plain old havoc in the region and around the globe. But Syria under Bashar can no longer even qualify to be the devil we know. It has become the devil we don’t know.
Rubin is deeply aware of the challenge facing the West today from the uncertain future of the Middle East, but he approaches it with a cautious and long-term optimism. Unlike the pessimists who feel that the Middle East will succumb to Islamism, Rubin points to the various factors that work in the opposite direction. Old-fashioned Arab nationalism is still a force to be reckoned with. Demagogues like Bashar might well prove cunning enough to manipulate Islamist sentiments for their own purposes without losing basic control over their societies. The militaries of various Muslim nations are still largely committed to secular nationalism, and have shown that that they are willing to use their might to keep Islamists out of power. Nor should we forget about the quasi-Westernized nations like Jordan and Kuwait. In short, while the Islamists may grab the headlines and absorb the attention of the West at the present moment, Rubin points to other deep historical and structural forces at work that many observers in the West tend to ignore.
Though not a pessimist, Rubin is equally opposed to the “quick-fix” optimism that prevails among Western leaders. That optimism may come in different forms, from the promotion of peace accords to the initiation of regime change. What they have in common is that they are looking for a miraculous transformation of the region in the blink of an eye. The West, typically, likes to solve problems swiftly and decisively. Once it settles an issue, it wants that issue to stay settled. But, as Rubin tells us, that is not how the problems of the Middle East can be solved. He wants the West to think in terms of 50 years, not the next presidential election cycle. He wants the West to relinquish the dangerous and often counterproductive search for a quick fix and to acquire the virtue of sumud, or steadfastness, in its approach to the region. Finally, Rubin is searching for a long-term consensus in the West that will focus on the genuine challenge facing us in the Middle East. The worst thing that the West can do in the face of threat of Islamism is to degenerate into the insanity of partisan politics.
For many Syrian moderates, the Western push for democracy seems more like an invitation to a beheading than the march of progress.
Barry Rubin’s book does not pretend to offer us a crystal-ball into the future; but it is absolutely indispensable reading for those who wish to break out of the self-defeating cycle that he dubs our “endless exercise in wishful thinking.” For those who agree with Walter Laqueur that the age of illusions is gone, it is a must read. The Truth about Syria may not set us free; but it can spare us from repeating the errors of the past, and that would be a good start for those in the West who appear to have lost the life-saving capacity to learn from their mistakes.
Lee Harris is the author, most recently, of The Suicide of Reason (Basic Books).