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Eye on the News

Michael J. Totten
The Tyrant of Damascus
Bashar al-Assad is no reformer.
7 April 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the United States will pursue no Libya-style intervention in Syria, where demonstrators are setting government buildings on fire, security personnel are using live ammunition against the regime’s opponents, and some warn of impending civil war. Part of the reason for American inaction, Clinton explains, is that members of both the Democratic and Republican Parties believe that Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, is a reformer. Unfortunately, she’s right about that: both political parties do seem to think, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that the current tyrant of Damascus wasn’t raised in the house of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

In fact, Bashar, like his father before him, is a blood-spattered sponsor of terrorism responsible for the murders of American, Iraqi, Israeli, Lebanese, and Syrian citizens. He helped jihadists from all over the Arab world cross Syria’s border with Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis; backed a car-bomb spree against Lebanese journalists and members of parliament; allows Iran to use Syria as a logistics hub in its armament of Hezbollah; and leases prime real estate in downtown Damascus to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who uses it for his headquarters. As if all that weren’t enough, Assad’s soldiers are now shooting unarmed protesters in the streets of their own neighborhoods.

Assad’s regime has always been characterized by totalitarianism at home and terrorism abroad. The reason for the first is simple: he can’t survive without his instruments of internal repression. As for the terrorism, if Syria severed its alliance with Iran, let Lebanon go its own way, and dismantled its support system for Hamas and Hezbollah, it would have no more geopolitical clout than Yemen has. Further, Assad supported the Iraqi insurgency because it made the world’s democrats shudder at the bitter fruits of regime change in the region. “For Assad,” Middle East expert Lee Smith wrote in his brilliant but bleak book The Strong Horse, “the Iraqi insurgency amounted to a debate over the nature of the Middle East. The Bush administration thought that the region was ripe for democracy and pluralism, and that its furies could be tamed by giving Middle Easterners a voice in their own government. . . . [Syria’s] support for the insurgency was, at least in part, intended to give Washington no choice but to put away dangerous ideas like Arab democracy.”

Many hoped that Assad would turn out to be a reformer when he assumed Syria’s presidency after his father died in 2000. He promoted himself that way, and for a while, he looked halfway convincing. He’s an ophthalmologist, not a military officer; he’s a bit of a technology geek and an Internet addict; he spent several years in the United Kingdom, where his wife, Asma, was born. Even when the promised reforms failed to materialize and repression against dissidents was ramped up again, some blamed the regime’s so-called “old guard,” followers of Hafez al-Assad who were maybe, just maybe, in Bashar’s way.

The problem with that theory is that Bashar has been in power for more than a decade now, and he has handpicked those who surround him. “The basis for such arguments was Assad’s own public relations strategy,” Lebanese-American scholar Tony Badran writes in Foreign Affairs. “When Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, he adopted the ‘old versus new guard’ theme to cultivate his image as a reformer and bolster his legitimacy at home and abroad. For a brief period, he allowed dissidents to criticize corruption openly. But this so-called Damascus Spring was a cynical mirage. In the past decade, Syria has not seen a single meaningful act of reform.”

Even if he wanted to, Assad would have a difficult time reforming the system that he inherited—not because of a stubborn “old guard,” which doesn’t exist, but because of the nature of Syria’s sectarian demographics. He and his family are members of the Alawite minority, a religious sect that constitutes about 10 percent of Syria’s population. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has always considered the Alawites infidels. (The region’s Shia Muslims considered them infidels, too, until Lebanese cleric Musa Sadr issued a fatwa declaring them Shias in 1973 because doing so suited his political agenda at that time.) Between the First and Second World Wars, the Alawites had their own semi-autonomous state along the Mediterranean coast, just north of Lebanon, but it was absorbed into Syria shortly before the French left the region. The Alawites (including Bashar’s grandfather, Suleiman) loathed the idea of living as vulnerable minorities in a country with a Sunni majority. Since the French left the Alawites to their fate, some figured—perhaps rightly—that the safest thing they could do was conquer Syria and rule it themselves. They still believe that their battle for power is a fight for their very survival. No one should expect them to go quietly.

Michael J. Totten is the author of The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.

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