What is the good of history if we learn nothing from it?
This is the question that surged in my mind the other day as I followed Kofi Annan’s forlorn mission to Syria. The former Secretary General of the United Nation had been picked by his successor Ban Ki-moon and the Arab League to take the road to Damascus to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to stop massacring his people.
Annan’s new mission reminded me of another episode in his distinguished diplomatic career in 2003. Then, as the prospect of war loomed larger, Annan had embarked on a “last-chance” mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to accept a “peaceful solution”.
On his way to Iraq, Annan briefed half a dozen columnists at a dinner on the fringes of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. None of us believed that Annan’s mission would get anywhere, and told him so without affecting his optimism.
After we had left the table, I walked with Annan to ask what Saddam should do to prevent foreign intervention.
Although he said he could not offer details, Annan answered with a list that, had Saddam agreed to implement even half of its items, would have destroyed the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad.
It was obvious that Annan, and those who backed his mission, missed a simple point: diplomacy does not work with regimes like that of Saddam.
Let’s return to Syria now. For a brief moment at the start of the uprising, President Assad hesitated at an intellectual fork on the road. The question he pondered was: to kill or not to kill? Whether because of his own analysis or under pressure from his entourage, Assad decided to kill. And once he had taken that decision, there was no turning back.
Like every language, every political system has its grammar. One cannot understand the Norwegian system with rules that apply to the political system in Syria and vice versa.
A study of the grammar of the present political system in Syria would show that, even if he wanted to, Assad could not embark on reforms that might satisfy his opponents.
All political systems have their founding myths. In the case of the system in Syria, however, what we have is a set of lies masquerading as myths.
The first lie is that of pan-Arabism.
The system is supposed to be an instrument for achieving that elusive unity.
However, we know that, under the Assads, Syria has moved steadily away from that objective. The Ba’ath Party, used by the Assads as a political fig-leaf, was instrumental in the military coup that ended the brief union with Egypt under Nasser. And since then, Syria has done more to divide than unite Arabs.
Over the past three decades, Syria has been closer to Iran than to any Arab country, ending up as a satellite of the Khomeinist regime. No wonder, Iranian spokesmen speak of Syria as if it were a province of the Islamic Republic.
The second lie is that of “resistance” supposedly against Israel. However, the truth is that since the Assads came to power the ceasefire line with Syria has been Israel’s quietest boundary with its neighbours.
The third lie concerns the regime’s claim to be protector of minorities. However, it was the Ba’ath that, with a stroke of the pen, deprived ethnic Kurds of their citizenship. The fact that the regime divides Syrians into “minorities” that need protection is reason enough for perpetuating sectarianism. While none of the “minorities” have full citizenship rights, the Sunni Muslim majority is presented as a monster waiting to be unshackled.
In recent months, the regime has added new lies to its founding lies. Assad tells foreign visitors that if he steps aside Syria would slip into civil war. The truth is that Syria is not divided into two camps of more or less equal size, the key condition for a civil war. If Assad steps aside, Syrians, including a part of his regime, could work out a peaceful transition.
Assad is desperately working to provoke a civil war. His regime has tried to divide the opposition, even by creating fake opposition groups run by his intelligence services. His “shabbiha” commit mass slaughter with the aim of provoking an armed reaction that would, in turn, allow Assad to describe his opponents as terrorists.
The good news is that, sooner or later, even if disguised as myths, political lies are exposed.
The above analysis is not intended to knock Annan or diplomacy as such. It is wise to allow diplomacy to take its full course as it did in Iraq, to persuade the world public opinion that there is no diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis as long as Assad remains in power.
Annan’s mission has highlighted a fact that many recognized from the start. Syria is heading for a situation in in which the right to intervene, now well established in international law, becomes a duty for those capable of making a difference.
With Assad, and despots like him, no diplomat, not even one as brilliant as Annan, is likely to get anywhere.
Diplomacy cannot persuade the Assad regime to act against its political DNA. This regime came into being through violence and has maintained power by a mixture of massacre, mass imprisonment, censorship and corruption. It cannot behave against its nature. In a bad system, even the best of men cannot do much good while a good system may prevent bad men from doing the worst. Having bad men running a bad system is a recipe for tragedy.