How do I know this? Because I was involved as an advisor (to the American side to be specific) in a number of initiatives meant to help jumpstart the Syrian-Israeli peace track and establish effective conduits for dialogue and communications between the Syrian regime and the Bush Administration. All these initiatives met with rejection the moment they landed in Bashar’s lap, regardless of the public gestures and declarations he was making at the time, such as shaking the hand of the Israeli President during Pope John Paul II funeral and asserting that his regime was ready to negotiate with the Israelis without on the basis of the Madrid Conference alone.
The most important such initiative was the one proposed by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in mid 2004 (that is just at the time when I was doing my first fellowship at Saban). And Martin took the matter to the Syrian President directly in October of 2004 in order to avoid any miscommunication or misunderstanding, and to avoid having to continuously assume that someone, such as the perennial fall guy in these matters, our country’s official court jester and Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Charaa, prevailed upon the President and turned him against the initiative. We also wanted to make sure to get some of the Syrian advisors who had taken part in previous negotiations with Israel, because had an interest in really starting from scratch. But these people understandably needed to have some green light from Bashar before they could commit.
Martin explained to Bashar at the time that serious interest exist in all relevant circles in Washington and Tel Aviv to convene a series of quiet meetings in Washington, DC involving Syrian, Israeli and American policy-advisors in the hope of preparing a roadmap of sorts for Syrian-Israeli peace and for improving Syrian-American relations. The people involved on the Israeli and American side, Martin assured Bashar (and I can, of course, vouch for that, as I knew all and met most of them), will be high level advisors close to both Bush and Sharon and, as such, will be able to accurately reflect the viewpoints of their respective administrations, ensuring that the end product that will come out of the meetings is indeed salable to both. If Bashar can, therefore, nominate equally credible people on the Syria side, the end product is bound to be appropriate from the Syrian perspective as well. In all cases, there was really little to lose and much to gain for all sides.
Well, Bashar didn’t think so, and he shut down the entire idea without giving any explanation, except to say that he doesn’t think any good can come out of secret negotiations! The assertion would have been more believable had previous efforts in which I was involved not being shut down on the pretense that Syrians prefer a more quiet diplomacy while Israelis insist on going public from day one.
In other words, on the issue of the Syrian-Israeli peace and Syrian-American relations Bashar was all talk and no action. Actually, this was Bashar’s story all along on almost everything including the issue of economic reform and the fight against corruption. The only exception in this regard is the issue of crackdown on democracy and human rights activists. Here indeed, Bashar was all action.
So, all these people who still look at Bashar as a statesman frankly surprise me. It seems more wishful thinking on their part, because it helps them avoid dealing with the implications of his inadequacy, not to mention his thuggish and authoritarian predilections.Maher, too, suffer from these shortcomings and predilections, multiplied by a factor of ten and with added bonus of hotheadedness.
As for Assef, whom I believe is the key player behind most of the policies currently adopted by the Assads, well, my knowledge of his character are first hand and all too recent, and not just based on indirect contacts or remembrances of brief interactions that took place way back in high school (for yes, Bashar, Maher, the lesser known Majd, and yours truly attended the same high school in Damascus).
In my second meeting with Assef, he held in his hand translations of a number of articles and interviews in which I referred to Bashar as a “Fredo Corleone” and an “idiot.” Yet Assef never mentioned or seemed interested in this matter. What ticked him off were my calls for a civil disobedience campaign and my predictions that under Bashar’s rule the country was headed for a civil war. The Tharwa Project, my work on minority-majority relations and my refusal to accept his proposal that Islamists of all stands are the common enemy and we should all unite against them in the name of secular virtues were the main problems.
The underlying topic of all our “talks” has consistently been the Sunni-Alawite divide. Assef referred to it variously as the rural-urban divide, a dichotomy along socioeconomic conditions, the secular-Islamist divides, but in the heat of the debate and as I refused to take his arguments at face value and continued to refute them, a certain “we-and-you” emerged that betrayed the whole thing: he is an Alawite and I am a Sunni, he has control, I have none, and my only way into the game (assuming, of course, that I wanted to be in the game) is on his own terms.
And his terms were/are: the Alawite will continue to rule from behind the existing facades, which will never altered in any significant manner so that people like me could never any idea that the existing situation cold ever be changed.
Indeed, it is Assef (and Bushra) who is the true ideological heirs of Hafez al-Assad. He is a committed Baathist and a committed believer in the necessity of continued Alawite rule, at ALL costs. This is why he is opposed to any attempt at playing around with the political structure of the current regime. He will not risk having the system that has been elaborated by Assad Sr. and, at such great cost, come tumbling down. Their “reform” agenda, which Bashar also subscribes to, is to give the Syrian people handouts in the form of occasional pay-hikes and “subsidized” housing projects, continue to co-opt reformers and opposition figures, and to centralize all powers more and more under the control of the Assad-Makhlouf clan who, in their eyes, have earned the right to that by adhering to the plans set by Assad Sr. people like Ali Haydar, Ali Duba, the late Ghazi Kanaan, and all other disgruntled Alawite officers, have lost this privilege because they showed more willingness to compromise with the Sunnis.
This willingness seems to have been spurred on by the belief that maintaining the status quo is simply untenable and that the best time to reach a compromise is NOW, a time when Alawite are still in control of the military and that Sunni radicalism, while having made many serious inroads into the Sunni communities, is still incapable of uniting the majority of Sunnis under its flag.
The struggle between the Assads and their opponents has always revolved around this issue, this is the real struggle that has been and still is taking place in the country, and this struggle takes primacy over all others and constitutes the prism through which everything else is examined by the Assads, and against which all other considerations are weighed and measured.
Throw in the economic considerations into the mix, and the related turf wars that usually take place in such circumstances, then, pray tell me, where is the capable and “honest” statesman that can sit down with “the Lebanese opponents” and the representatives of the American administration?
Bashar was tried numerous times and was found lacking, and Assef is, by his very ideological predilections, as anti-American and anti-reform as you can get. Assef’s willingness to contemplate dealing with the American at one point was simply an extension of Hafiz’own – more a reflection of momentary necessity than an ability to understand the inner workings of American politics and execute an ideological shift in one’s worldview.
In short, the Assads are not statesmen and can never be. If we really want what is good for our country, we have to deal with this glaring and unfortunate reality, with all its implications: the Assads need to go. We need to shake the system and break the stalemate. No, democracy will not be the immediate outcome here, let’s not deceive ourselves. But under the Assads, we have no hope of ever working for democracy, or anything for that matter. The Assads need to go so we can have a real start at something. And, no there are no guarantees. Those who want guarantees might as well stick with Bashar & Co. They can guarantee the persistence of a veneer of stability, though at the expense of our dignity, until such time when the whole thing comes crashing down on all our heads.
For the Assads are like termites, they tend to destroy their own home and seal their own fate. And ours as well of course, otherwise, why should any of us care?