Up to the Minute: The Latest Political Developments in Syria

This Opinion was first delivered as a speech at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson Institute on February 7, 2012

Last Saturday's Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes of the resolution on Syria have resulted in a flood of media commentary and sharply angry statements from Secretary of State Clinton and other senior American officials. Pundits have used the crisis to expound on their favorite interpretations of global strategy, dissecting its impact on Russian, Iranian, Israeli and American interests. “Doomed” is just about everyone's characterization of the Bashar Assad regime. However, since I understand that one tenet of the Woodrow Wilson Institute is that the past is prologue, I would like to start this afternoon by recalling a few of my personal experiences in Syria in the hope this may help clarify the present situation.

When I arrived in Aleppo, Syria, in 1960 to serve as Consul in our three-man American Consulate General, Syria had been part of United Arab Republic for the previous two years. Syrians were still talking with dismay about the brutality of the 1958 revolution next door in Iraq. Christian acquaintances said it reminded them of the brutal treatment they received at the hands of Syrian Muslims. Because they spoke of this as happening only yesterday, it took some questioning to realize that their reference was to the clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Aleppo of the 1860s.

During my first year United Arab Republic President Jamal Abdul Nasser visited and was given a rapturous reception. Soon thereafter, I attended a cultural evening staged by the branch office of the Ministry of Culture. It was an uneventful evening of music and folk dancing until near the end of the program an actor introduced as King Hussein of Jordan dressed as a monkey on a leash was dragged on stage and mocked as the pitiful creature of Western Imperialism. My Arabic was not strong enough to catch all the repartee but the audience received the skit with raucous applause.

In September of 1961, tiring of its membership in the United Arab Republic, meaning resentful of domination by “brother Egypt,” the Syrian military pulled their country out of the UAR. Drums and bugles opened the broadcast over state radio on the morning of that first day. The announcer affirmed Syrian independence and sternly warned that any opposition to the new leadership would be struck down by “an iron hand.”

The changeover was in fact bloodless and greatly boosted the morale of Syria's Christian and Sunni business leaders. They swore that they had learned the lessons of their past political mistakes and would not miss this chance to chart and lead a new course for the country. Aleppans who had been in charge in the pre-UAR period of national political parties hurried to Damascus to rally their supporters. Members of those same communities continued a tradition of hiring for 5 to 10 year terms small Alawite children from the impoverished coastal towns to serve as indentured servants. Well-to-do Sunni and Christian families were already sending their own children to universities in Europe and the U.S. That left openings at the military academies to be filled by the less well off, including young Alawite males among whom was Hafez Assad, father of Bashar.

A further year passed and in 1962 there was a coup attempt aimed at restoring Syria to the UAR. On the second day state radio, using what sounded like the same announcer and music as in 1961, again promised that a “hand of iron” would crush anyone who sought to upset state stability. That was the first time I was personally credited with playing a central role in an anti-Syrian conspiracy. Eyewitnesses swore they had seen me leading a procession in central Aleppo and handing out money and photographs of Abdul Nasser. Their story contained a kernel of truth. What I had done about two weeks before the coup attempt was to hand out photographs to a group of high school students visiting our Consulate office. The photographs were not of Abdul Nasser but rather of a smiling John Glenn who had just completed America's first space flight. Attempts to clear up the rumors proved useless. As one friend later explained “we might not have believed it but the story linking you to Abdul Nasser was too good not to repeat.” Six months later came the Baathi coup and a week after that I left with my family on an empty Syrian Airways plane to Beirut on the way to Saudi Arabia for our next assignment.

In 1974 I returned to Syria, this time as Ambassador. Our embassy had been shut down at the time of the 1967 war and had recently reopened. I arrived shortly after Kissinger had completed his month-long shuttle between Israel and Syria which achieved what was known as the first Syrian-Israeli disengagement. Kissinger enjoys recounting his first meeting with Hafez Assad in late 1973 during which he worked to attract Syria to the Geneva conference planned for December to lay the basis for future Israeli- Arab negotiations. He carefully and patiently brought Assad to agree on the place, the timing and the conference agenda. He ended by expressing his satisfaction to Assad that they had been able to reach agreement, noting he had been warned by other Arab leaders how difficult Assad would be. Assad put him down politely with the comment “But I never agreed that Syria would attend.”

Two years later I worked with Syrian Army Chief of Staff General Chihabi to ensure that there would be no misunderstandings in Israel of Assad's intentions when he responded to the Lebanese President's request for Syrian troops to help fight the PLO and its supporters Assad moved his forces towards the Lebanese border, paused, cautiously moved a few units across, paused again and then ensured that all his troops carefully observed Israel's “red lines” on their deployment towards Beirut. The Syrian presence became a prolonged occupation of Lebanon. His regime was contemptuous of Lebanese politicians and worked to curtail sectarian politics in Lebanon. As part of that campaign it sought to diminish the authority of the president. When the Lebanese election came due in 1988, Damascus finally agreed to its being held in 1988 but dictated that it would be contested by just one candidate and that candidate had to be approved by Damascus. There was in the event no election and the bloody civil war in Lebanon continued for another 2 years.

Hafez Assad fully reciprocated the suspicion and distrust which Washington and other capitals felt towards him. When we supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz insisted that I visit the Baghdad National Museum because “There you will see that throughout the ages Iraq has been a builder and Syria a destroyer.” His sentiment on Syria echoed Washington's opinion held over the years. Syria was the state which never cooperated with U.S. efforts on the Arab-Israeli peace process; the state which opened its borders to the jihadists seeking passage to Iraq in the wake of America's invasion; the country that tried to dominate its neighbor Lebanon, gave shelter to the radical Hamas leadership and, worst of all, the country which cooperates with our Iranian adversary, authorizing use of its airport and roads to move Iranian weaponry into south Lebanon. At the same time as he built close ties to Hizbollah, Assad took care to show who was in charge and now and then responded to our requests to restrain Hizbollah and reduce tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Hafez al-Assad knew that History had not been kind to Syria and was ever watchful for potential conspiracies. The first World War had ended Ottoman domination but the British and French conspired to introduce their colonial rule and drew artificial borders for Syria. As the mandatory power, France had given away the province of Alexandretta to Turkey on the eve of the Second World War. The CIA had financed a coup by Colonel Husni Zaim in 1949 which triggered a series of military coups. In the 1950s the United States made two more major attempts to decide Syria's future with the unlikely names of “Operation Straggle” and “Operation Wappen”. In his presidential office Asad displayed a large oil pointing of the defeat of the Crusaders at the hands of Muslim warriors in the battle of Hittin. Its message was plain. Don't assume we Arabs can be pushed around.

Assad viewed Sadat's negotiations with Israel which eventually produced Camp David and an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty as a systematic betrayal of Syria which had begun when Sadat had broken ranks with him and accepted a truce with Israel, ending the 1973 war. He relished the title of “Leader of the Steadfastness and Resistance Front” against Israel. A proud man, he was convinced that Syria had a valid message for the Arab World. For years he said he could sign non-belligerency agreement with Israel but not make peace because peace was something that could occur only between peoples, not leaders, and would take at least a generation. He cautiously amended his position in the late eighties in expressing support for a “Peace of the Brave.” And yet, he was ready to work closely with Nixon, Kissinger, Carter, Reagan and Clinton on the understanding that however long it took, Syria would get back all of its lands occupied in 1967. Those who blamed him in the last meeting of his life with a U.S. leader for having destroyed the chance of an agreement with Israel, did not realize how committed he was to regain every inch of Syrian land lost in '67. There could be no compromise on the land.

Bashar Assad has perpetuated most of the policies of his father, but less skillfully. He has pledged many government reforms. His critics say that has failed to carry most of them out. The Baath Party has hardened into mouthpiece for the regime and a patronage machine. Assad did cooperate with Turkey in trying to advance the peace process and persuaded successive American officials that he was ready for peace. He did not, however, foresee that the Arab Spring would sweep into his country built on the frustrations of its population, particularly its youth over corruption, lack of jobs and a sense of powerlessness. He has asserted that Syria's situation is the same that his father faced and that like his father he will triumph over conspiracies and staunchly defend Arab values. He has been insulting about other Arab leaders and publicly savaged them as dwarfs. However, Hafez Assad's pride in proclaiming that Syria deserved respect for its steadfast confrontation of Israel is one thing; it is quite another for Bashar to take pride in standing alone, challenged by the Arab League and vilified for brutality towards his own people.

Will Bashar's regime survive its current crisis or will it soon disappear? The international appetite for its demise has grown built on the assumption that after Bin Ali, Mubarak and Qadhafi's collapse Assad is fated to be the next to fall. From the first day of shock over its abuse of teenage graffiti painters in Derraa the Syrian regime has maintained that its opponents are thugs and assassins who are funded and armed by in an international conspiracy representing Imperialism, Zionism and all others who hate Syria's independent policies. The line is old but may retain some resonance inside his country.

Time has moved on. It is no longer the 1980s when the government's destruction of Hama could occur without exciting an international outcry. On whom can Bashar rely? Where does he find his support? Domestically, the elaborate and largely efficient network of security services created by his father. The great bulk of the Syrian military thus far are loyal. The business community and minorities, including the Alawi, Christians, Kurds and Druze are ambivalent, reluctant to embrace a regime change which might bring to power an authority less friendly toward their interests. The regime is accused of fomenting sectarian fears among the country's minorities. While stating that he must step down, and President Obama last August did call on Assad to do so, regional states and the international community have shown themselves hesitant in handling Syria, concerned both about the trouble making potential of the regime if it senses a dangerous level of pressure on itself and about the uncertainties of the post Assad future.

By the time the Arab League went to the Security Council last week its position had become increasingly blurred. The League's Secretary General Nabil Alaraby said that its language “did not ask for the President to step down permanently but temporarily and to delegate power to the Vice President”. There were no demands for an arms embargo or additional sanctions. The Arab League's activism first with Libya and now Syria has been surprising. The regime is probably correct in believing that the League's call for Assad to delegate his authority would be the first step on a highly slippery slope for the entire leadership. Assad himself has labeled the League's efforts as just one more example of international hostility against Syria and mocked the pressure from Arab monarchs to teach it lessons in Democracy.

Russia continued to stress that Syrians should be left to resolve their problems free from outside interference and pronounced its readiness to veto any other position. Secretary Clinton's assurances that no country seeks military intervention in Syria were not persuasive to Moscow. There may be something more behind Russia's position. First, Moscow sees itself as betrayed over the way the Security Council resolution on Libya, designed to protect its civilian population, was stretched to promote regime change. Second, this is election time in Russia when the posture of facing down international pressures at the Security Council may be useful to Putin's party. Third, it considers that the United States and others do not understand the dangers of encouraging political changes in the Middle East which strengthen militant Islamic movements. It obviously has concerns about such movements within Russia.

Today Russia is center stage as Foreign Minister Lavrov visits Damascus. Russia's insistence that change must come only as a result of internal Syrian forces is music to the Syrian regime's ears. Will he simply be encouraging negotiations between the regime and its critics? Its offer of mediation has already been rejected by the Syrian National Council until Assad has given up his power. Lavrov made the curious comment last week that Russia has no love affair with Bashar. Might he have decided to work to convince Assad to step down and leave the country with others of the ruling family?

Lavrov's staff has surely reminded him of Syrian stubbornness. In the mid 70's the Soviet Ambassador to Damascus who was dean of the diplomatic corps sought to enlighten me on my arrival there saying “You think of Syria as a Soviet client who accepts everything from the Soviet Union. Let me tell you this: it accepts everything but our advice.” However accurate that observation was then and still may be, the fact remains that Moscow is a longstanding ally of Syria and retains a strategic interest in that country. However, I would not exaggerate the importance to Moscow of its naval base in Tartous or the attractiveness of the arms market in an impoverished Syria.

What about Iran? Tehran has provided important support to Syria over recent years and would not want to lose its favored position if the Assad regime collapses. Nonetheless Iranian financial resources are limited and it may be hedging its bets. There are reports that it is encouraging Syrian dissidents to negotiate with the regime. Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have been outspokenly critical of both Syria and Iran. They likely think that now is the moment to weaken Syrian-Iranian ties and thereby cut off the thrust of Shiite Iranian power into the Arab World.

The irony is that both Moscow and Washington are expressing concern about a possible civil war if there is not an early end to the current violence but have flatly disagreed on next steps. How might this end? The Baath's half century of political dominance has stunted the abilities of the opposition to organize and demonstrate its capacity to develop an alternative government. There could be a coup carried out by influential regime insiders led by Alawite and Sunni military officers who see the need to reach a deal with the demonstrators sooner rather than later and move Syria towards serious political democratization. They might see a coup as the best hope to spare the country from upheavals and the Alawites from widespread retribution after Assad. There are already signs that the opposition contains Sunni elements who are bent on revenge for the 1982 Hama massacre and subsequent regime brutality. Why otherwise would the Syrian Free Army have designated its units with the names of historic Sunni heroes such as Muawiya bin Sufyan and Khalid bin Walid?

Some have argued that Syria could dissolve along ethnic lines with a full civil war leading to creation of mini states of Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Sunnis. I think this is less likely than the possibility that a desperate Assad could attempt to incite regional actors such as Hezbollah to blow up its truce with Israel. There is, however, no current evidence that Hezbollah wants to be used in this way.
All regimes have their shelf life and we may be watching the final convulsions of the Assad dynasty. It seems to believe that it can repeat the brutality which Hafez al Assad used in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 in Hama and survive. But Damascus today is under far more intense scrutiny and this, combined with the momentum for change behind the Arab Spring, makes Assad's long term survival improbable. Its youth wants concrete changes in the way they are governed and to hold to account those responsible for past crimes. Bashar's regime favors repression of its critics, and neither Syria's youth nor the regime are strong enough to prevail over one another.
It is hard to penetrate the decision making of his inner circle, but based on what is happening it appears that they have cast their vote for a policy of continued use of force against its opponents. Given the standoff at the Security Council, the regime is now betting that time is on its side. No neighbor has closed its borders with Syria and Damascus is under far less pressure than Iraq was between Desert Storm in 1991 and our invasion in 2003. For me this suggests that months will pass before collapse and that we will have limited ability to shorten its life.