Saturday, November 04, 2006

Tony Badran on Syria under Bashar Assad

It's not an exaggeration to use the word byzantine referring to politics in the Middle East. Geographically the name derives from an old name for what is now Istanbul, but the word suggests a convoluted system of social/political/religious "checks and balances" cobbling together something resembling a coherent system. That is the image I get as I read this piece.

Writing in Mideast Monitor, a relatively new bi-monthly, Tony Badran delivers yeoman's work analyzing the regime of Syria's Bashar Assad. This is not light reading. This is prescription-strength, somewhat dry but important, scholarly research looking at how Assad has succeeded in keeping his footing following the death of his father, Hafez Assad, six years ago.

Anyone commenting on Syria not conversant with details so carefully laid out in this piece needs to stop talking and start reading. (That rubric, incidentally, rules out about ninety-five percent of everything I have read about Syria. As in the case of so many high-profile stories, the depth of ignorance about the subject, though no longer surprising, is astounding. And I include myself in that assessment as well.)

The late Syrian President Hafez Assad's success in maintaining his grip on power for three decades depended greatly on his skillful use of coercion and cooptation to divide opponents of the regime along ethnic, sectarian, and ideological lines.

His son and successor, Bashar, has failed to manage these divisions. Unfavorable international conditions, colossal foreign policy failures, and a precarious economy have left the regime with little bargaining leverage other than its control over the instruments of repression. This asset remains effective in silencing and intimidating dissidents individually, but ineffective in obstructing their collective gravitation around the demand for regime change.

Nevertheless, the Syrian opposition remains weak and (apart from Kurdish groups) isolated from the population at large. In the face of a state that penetrates the daily lives of its citizens at will, this is a serious shortcoming. The fact that Syrian intellectuals have gravitated toward the demand for regime change, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, does not herald the end of the struggle for democracy in Syria, or even the beginning of the end. At most, it is the end of the beginning.

So begins a close scrutiny of what may be another vulnerable regime in the Middle East. But just because Assad's success, if it can be called that, owes more to default than design, that is no reason for optimism as we have seen in Iraq. Read to learn the distinction between islah (reform) and taghyeer (change) of the regime. Follow the trail as the writer describes the Secular-Islamist Divide, the Arab-Kurd Divide, the Internal-External Divide and the Sectarian Divide.

Catch your breath as you come to this conclusion...

Many in the opposition express fear that the international community will cut a deal with the regime that would relax outside pressure and give it a new lease on life. For better or for worse, however, Assad has thrown in his lot with an ascendant Iran, which he thinks will emerge as the top regional power in the twenty-first century. This alliance and his policy of brinkmanship, he believes, will force the international community to deal with him on his terms, without any serious concessions on his part.


Now that islah is dead, as one prominent Syrian political analyst notes, the regime's goal is to "recreate legitimacy based on something other than reform." Having once marketed himself as a pro-Western reformer, Assad has now repackaged himself as a defender of Arab-Islamic interests and values, coalescing his radical anti-Western foreign policy with an Islamification campaign at home. The iconography in Syria today depicts the trinity of Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah as embodying "the culture of resistance." He has carefully manipulated popular animosities toward Lebanon, America and Israel to sell this image.


All in all, his transition from "reformer" to "resister" has drawn some support from the Syrian masses, particularly the youth (roughly 60% of the population is under 20). This has served to isolate aging opposition leaders and will suffice to maintain his grip on power for the time being. At the end of the day, however, it is unlikely to alleviate the country's stifling isolation, solve its crippling economic problems, or persuade the educated elite of Syria to reunite behind the regime.

I want the writer to be wrong. Very wrong. But if history is any teacher, children are much more controllable than adults. And by children I am old enough to mean anyone under twenty. So if the stats are anywhere near correct -- sixty percent of the population under twenty -- whoever is in charge in Syria has a good shot at staying there as long as he can keep enough people from getting hungry or poor.

Heck, look how well Americans can be led by the nose. Bread and circuses is all it takes. Some principles never change.

Tonay Badran blogs at Across the Bay.

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