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The Political Wisdom of Bashar al-Assad | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Margaret Thatcher was once asked whether it was “politically wise” for a leader to tackle a crisis in the making by confronting it quickly, instead of waiting for it to arise. She paused for a second and then answered: “Most of the time, what we believe to be pre-emptive political wisdom does not end up that way. Each pre-emptive action we deem to be intelligent has a delayed reaction. What really matters is the slow yet long term response, which occurs over a substantial period of time.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should have realized that arousing the hostility of others by destroying channels of communication with the outside world, and attacking foreign diplomats and embassies, would not be a “wise” policy. Once he began to sense his enforced isolation, fear and confusion began to engulf him. In a historic step, the Arab League boldly froze Syria’s membership. The Arab statement went even further by calling on the Syrian army “not to engage in acts of violence and murder against civilians.” This message was interpreted as the majority of Arab League members no longer regarding the Baath regime in Syria as the legitimate representative of the Syrian state. Perhaps this is what prompted King Abdullah II of Jordan to send a direct message to President Assad, in an interview with BBC World News TV, by saying: “If I were in his shoes, I would step down.”

The most lethal weapon that can be used against any regime is the collapse of its legitimacy abroad. If a near consensus is reached not to recognize a political regime, then there is no hope for its survival. Ever since the emergence of the crisis, the Syrian regime has provoked the hostility of the US and the European Union. Afterwards, it spared no Gulf or Arab state with its heinous insults and accusations. Now it seems that Damascus has not learnt from the Libyan lesson. The main cause of the Gaddafi regime’s destructive collapse was the existence of an international and regional agreement for its elimination, which became a necessity.

President al-Assad tried to maneuver with all available tactics, until the voices emanating from Damascus became contradictory and reflective of the great confusion within the ruling establishment. It appears as if senior state officials no longer know what is going on, after security elements took control of the decision-making process. Over the past three months, the regime’s media machine in Syria and Lebanon has tried to reassure its elements and allies by repeating the phrase “The crisis is nearly over”, and by stressing that the regime is trying its best to limit daily casualties. By reiterating such lies, the media machine has labored under the illusion that it can change the “psychological warfare” equation, based on sectarian and ethnic alignment.

Moreover, those defending Damascus’s position warn that Syria has not yet played its trump cards; stating that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian allies in Iraq and Gaza, as well as sleeper cells in the Gulf, have yet to be resorted to. The regime’s propaganda goes as far as threatening to set the region ablaze, just as the Syrian President warned in an earlier interview.

In reality, Syria today is a broken and destroyed country – regardless of the President’s threats – because it is impossible to heal the sectarian and social rift caused by the recent developments. The problem with the President and his regime’s elements is that they are now engaged in ruthless fighting, having run out of other solutions. They all realize that killing more protesters is the only option left, because the other scenario would mean the collapse of the Baath party and its establishments, just like what happened in Iraq in 2003, or what happened to Gaddafi’s popular committees in 2011.

Needless to say, the option of fighting until the bitter end is sorely lacking in political wisdom. President al-Assad and his regime have passed up all available opportunities to weather the crisis. He even refused to make “nominal” concessions, and thus he has ended up besieged and under threat of international intervention, either through a buffer or no-fly zone, both of which could pave the way for his overthrow. What about the al-Assad regime’s threats of starting a civil war, burning the entire region, and resorting to its Iranian and Lebanese allies’ weapons?

President Bashar al-Assad is right about the possible exposure of the region to great harm in the event of his regime’s overthrow, and about the probability of the outbreak of a civil war due to the absence of guarantees and concordance between the different sects. Naturally his allies would interfere to the best of their ability to make this happen, and punish others for intervening in Syria. But what President Bashar al-Assad does not understand is that by threatening to carry out such a scenario, he is actually fostering the idea that his regime might fall, despite all the feverish attempts he is making to keep it in place. He is also sending the message that the “post-Assad” era is not a mere fantasy, even though it might be a dark and earth-shattering period.

The Syrian regime’s hourglass has begun to count down, and as my fellow journalist Mshari al-Zaydi says. “The sand is moving slowly from the top to the bottom.” The important question here is whether Syria’s allies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, will fight for the al-Assad regime, or sacrifice it to protect their own interests?

In his book entitled ” Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East” (2009), Jubin Goodarzi recounts that in October 1987, late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad faced a serious crisis when the majority in the Arab League demanded the issuance of an Arab resolution calling upon member states to sever ties with Tehran. On the one hand, acts of sabotage carried out by Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements in Mecca during the July had forged a unified (Sunni) Arab position on what they considered to be attacks on holy sites. On the other, Iraq was experiencing a retreat on its war front with Iran, which prompted the Iraqis to warn the Arab countries that territory could fall if Iran continued to refuse the UN Security Council draft resolution for a ceasefire. Tensions mounted following Iran’s involvement in the sinking of a Kuwaiti oil tanker, and its clashes with the US Navy in the Gulf.

In the face of tremendous pressure, Hafez al-Assad announced that he would boycott Amman’s Arab League summit in November 1987, which was dedicated to discussing Arab-Iranian relations, unless Israeli threats and the Palestinian Cause were put back on the agenda. At the time, Jordan’s monarch King Hussein went to Syria carrying a message from the Gulf States, to the effect that economic aid to Syria would stop if it boycotted the summit, or tried to undermine the resolution condemning Iran’s transgressions in the region. King Hussein added that Iraq was leading a campaign to reinstate Egypt into the League, which in effect would mean that Syria’s boycotting of the summit could lead to a future freeze on its membership, as a result of the tripartite Iraqi – Egyptian – Gulf alliance.

Goodarzi says that Hafez al-Assad absorbed the crisis and surprised everyone with a cabinet reshuffle, in a message clearly stating that Syria was on the point of major political change. Then he contacted the Iranians to tell them that Syria, outside of the Arab League, wouldn’t be able to serve Iran’s interests and that they would have to understand that Syria remaining in the Arab League, even with the adoption of resolutions condemning Iran, would protect the Iranian interests in the long run.

Hafez al-Assad withdrew his threat to boycott the summit and went to Amman to deliver a speech, over two hours long, about his vision for joint Arab work. Al-Assad skilfully managed to swallow his pride and sit with his arch rival Saddam Hussein, all to absorb the pressure mounting on his relations with Tehran, and to weather the crisis with the Gulf.

More than quarter of a century separates the two Jordanian messages, most recently to President Bashar al-Assad, and previously to his father. However, there is some resemblance between both cases. Hafez al-Assad realized that the importance of Syria to Iran lies in Syria being an active member in pan Arab politics. But what Bashar al-Assad seems unable to grasp is that an isolated Syria on the Arab level, and frozen on the regional level, might not be worth the sacrifice for Iran and its allies.

Lately, Bashar al-Assad has tried to rectify the catastrophe of Syria’s frozen membership by calling for an emergency Arab summit, in the hope of gaining the sympathy of some Arab leaders to buy more time. But it appears that the damage is already beyond repair.

The coming days might prove that what has been marketed as “political wisdom”, over the past decade of President al-Assad’s rule, was nothing but mere illusions.