Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Two fathers, two sons, one war | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

This is the story of two fathers, two sons and one war on Iraq that was carried out in two parts.

The two fathers were George H. Bush and Hafez al-Assad who were presidents of the United States and of Syria respectively in 1991 when a U.S.-led coalition ended Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.

In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, the sons were in office – George W. Bush and Bashar al-Assad.

Ignore for now that Bush junior was elected to lead the United States while Assad junior inherited his position. Concentrate instead on the historical irony behind this strange arrangement of two fathers, two sons and essentially one war on Iraq.

Looked at from this perspective, it becomes easier to see why the United States and Syria are at loggerheads but it also makes it possible to see a way out of the increasingly tense standoff between the two countries.

Several events this week got me thinking about the fathers and the sons of the American and Syrian presidency. Firstly, last week saw the first Baath Party Congress since Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father who died almost exactly five years ago. The Congress disappointed many reformers and observers hoping to hear of changes that could improve the lives of Syrians.

Secondly was the increasingly tough language on Syria coming out of Washington which is disappointing many in both the United States and the Middle East who are dismayed that Syria seems to be singled out for criticism while other Arab countries are left unscathed.

Flynt Leverett’s recently published book “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial By Fire” has been the perfect backdrop to these news events. Reading about the country and the circumstances that Assad junior inherited from his father got me wondering about Bush junior and his father – more precisely how the two fathers and the two sons handled their bilateral relations.

Why is it that when the two fathers were president, Syria and the United States enjoyed a warm relationship but now that the sons are in office relations between the two countries are at one of their lowest ebbs?

The most obvious answer would be that it is a different world today than the one in which Bush senior and Assad senior lived. Theirs was a pre-9/11 world in which America’s priorities and by default the world’s priorities were different. While that may be true, it is also important to note that the fathers and sons employed different leadership styles.

Although Bush senior and Assad senior inhabited a pre-9/11 world, their world was adjusting to its own changes too – for example, the Soviet Union had disappeared from the world stage, rendering obsolete many of the alliances and considerations that had shaped the way the United States and the countries of the Middle East dealt with each other.

But how did Bush senior and Assad senior react to these changes? If the United States and Syria are to avoid an escalation of hostilities, their sons would do well to learn from their fathers.

Bush senior and Assad senior recognized the importance of their respective countries and understood the importance that each played in the world of their time. In a world without long-time ally the Soviet Union, Assad senior recognized the importance of bolstering his relationship with the United States. Bush senior in his turn recognized the importance of including Syria in the Arab coalition he put together to help him eject Iraq out of Kuwait.

To sweeten the pie for Arab countries willing to join his coalition, Bush senior invited Arab countries to the Madrid peace talks, signaling a willingness to seriously engage with Arab-Israeli peace efforts. As Flynt Leverett points out, Syria was the first Arab country to accept the invitation.

It is difficult to imagine Bush junior and Assad junior engaging in such diplomacy and even more difficult to see them on the same side of a coalition today. They are both in need of a dose of their fathers’ bilateral cooperative spirit.

These two sons of presidents who are now presidents themselves have a couple of things in common. We often hear that Assad junior is surrounded by the “Old Guard”, officials from his father’s time in power. Bush junior has similarly been surrounded by officials who served in his father’s administration, such as his Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Too bad neither the Bush old guard nor the Assad old guard have encouraged Bush junior and Assad junior to emulate some of their father’s appreciation of positive engagement.

The underlying reason for this is clear: neither the sons or their old guard fully understand the importance of the other’s country in the way the fathers did. But the onus seems to fall on Syria’s shoulder here for this simple fact: Bush junior is president of the only superpower in the world and Assad junior is president of the last Baathist-ruled country in the world and there is no prize for guessing where the power lies.

This should not give the green light to Bush junior to act as if his one-size fits all idea of regime change is appropriate for Syria. Syria is not Iraq and Bashar al-Assad is not Saddam Hussein. I am not a fan of the Baath Party and I believe Arab nationalism should be buried alongside Communism, but I am also not a fan of Bush junior’s flimsy grounds for war.

At the same time, Assad junior must recognize that standing still in today’s world, refusing change or meaningful reform, means regression. His country will continue to earn international opprobrium for fingerprints that are looking increasingly like its own at both the Rafik Hairiri assassination and that of journalist Samir Qaseer. And the world will continue to lose patience with Syria unless it stays out of Lebanon’s business and concentrates on its own. There is plenty to focus on at home.

To end this story about two fathers and two sons and one war fought in two parts, it is important to finish with the subject of those two wars: Iraq.

The war that has been fought over two generations of Bush and Assad serves as another reminder of how things have changed since the presidency of the fathers. Bush senior, as we remember, refused to march onto Baghdad. Bush junior had his eyes set on Baghdad before his troops even landed in Iraq. This time there was no coalition and Assad junior condemned the war from the outset.

Iraq and Syria may have shared similarities – a mosaic of ethnic and sectarian groups and a minority that long ruled a majority. But it is in no one’s interest for them to share the chaos that engulfs Iraq today.

[email protected]