Friday, July 30, 2004

Michael Young on Bashar, the Golan and Lebanon

Michael Young weighs in on the Golan, Lebanon and the nature of Bashar al-Asad's presidency. As the opinion editor at the Daily Star, Young has the most important job on the Middle East's most important English language newspaper. He is also a regular contributor to Reason Magazine. To understand the full context for his remarks see my recent opinion piece "Creating a Syrian Dream," which he skillfully edited, and my exchange with Lee Smith on the Golan in my last post. Michael writes:

Dear Josh,

Thank you for the piece. Most interesting. I was wondering whether I could barge into your exchange with Lee on this.

On Lebanon and the Golan, I quite agree with Lee that the linkage defines an open-ended Lebanese stay, but I actually go further than that; I don't think Assad was serious about that at all. The Syrians may or may not leave Lebanon one day, but they are certainly not preparing for such a withdrawal, by which I mean by a physical and political withdrawal. Even if they cut back on the number of troops, this regime will not agree, unless compelled, from within or without, to a fully sovereign Lebanon. The Syrians after Madrid systematically sought to ensure that they would get back the Golan and a free hand in Lebanon after a peace settlement (which prompted Rabin to say, "I prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan."

You write: "On the other hand, the fact that Assad has repeated many times now that Syria has no national or territorial ambitions in Lebanon is significant. For so long, Syria has dissembled on this question, but now it is on the record from the president, so the Lebanese, Israelis, and everyone else can use it against Syria if there is ever a Golan deal or if Israel finally renounces the possibility of giving up the Golan."

However, Hafiz said virtually the same thing ("The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two nations"); what he didn't do, and Bashar has added nothing to this, is define what "no territorial ambitions" mean. Syria has not seriously contemplated annexing Lebanon for quite some time, but that doesn't mean it will not seek to perpetuate a relationship ensuring that Lebanese sovereignty is a fiction. Alas, I disagree with you, I don't think Bashar's statement was significant at all.

On the claim that: Bashar "has asked for peace with Israel, even announcing he would not insist on returning to the 1967 borders that tripped up negotiations between his father and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin," I would be skeptical. The Syrians have been of several minds on this, and while Bashar did hint at such a move in his NY Times interview, people like Sharaa and Shaaban almost immediately made statements qualifying that claim. My view? Bashar simply does not have the domestic political power to agree to less than his father did, and he knows it. Those were just words to interest the US.

Finally, you write: "Assad has jettisoned Baathist rhetoric and renounced Syrian irredentism in order to patch up relations with his neighbors and get on with internal reform. He is much closer in ideological outlook and instinct to the West than the US seems prepared to admit."

Again, it's your view and I had no business asking you to reconsider when I edited your piece, but my own view is rather different. Even the Baath is no longer Baathist, really, in that it has become a giant warehouse for patronage. Ideology is all but gone from that creaky leviathan, so that Bashar is no longer a Baathist actually means very little. I also must disagree that Bashar is "much closer in ideological outlook and instinct to the West." His backers in the West may want to think so, but, alas, all he really is is a second class Oriental modernizer.

Really being close in ideological outlook would mean that Bashar embraces representative government. I know that's easier said than done, but the fact is that he presides over a system of patronage that he is utterly incapable of changing, and he has failed to even consider mobilizing the population as a means of building up a counter-force to the elite that frustrates him at every turn. Yes, he might be sincere, but he's really no democrat and doesn't know how to play such politics. Gorbachev is very much on the minds of Syrian leaders, as is China pre-Tienanmen. They want a more modern order, but also one where the regime can easily undo demands for true democracy.

Don't make the mistake of reading your desires and sympathies into Bashar's actions; my guess is that he is a temp in whatever direction Syria is moving into; a classic middle-grounder, with no ability to control those on his left, or those on his right. That means that at some stage he will become expendable.
Phew, and thanks for bearing with me on this.

Best, Michael.
Can I possibly respond to such trenchant analysis and criticism? You will have to tune in this weekend.


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