Sunday, July 10, 2005

"Asad Knows What He is Doing" by Braude with comment

Joseph Braude, has written a very interesting and provocative article in this week's issue of the New Republic, (copied below) which Harvard's Joe Pace, presently a researcher in Syria, kindly sent me. The main thrust of the article is that Bashar is winning and should not be underestimated as a modern day Fredo Corleone. He is succeeding in dividing Europe from the US. He is pursuing a smart Iraq policy - buying off the new Iraqi government with economic deals it badly needs in order to thwart US pressure on the border issue. And he is wiggling out of the US economic embargo because scads of economically advanced countries want to do business with Syria even as Washington tries ineffectively to stop them.

I have two gripes with the article. One is that he takes my quotes completely out of context by trying to lump me in with Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Fuad Ajami. (Though I respect both, I disagree with them.) Braude does this hack job in order to create a straw man so he can then argue, "But these views underestimate the staying power of the present regime in Syria."

Surely, Braude has read "Syria Comment" closely enough to know that I have argued consistently that Bashar's regime has staying power and will be ruling Damascus in six years, long after President Bush has returned to Texas and Washington has forgotten Syria and "Reforming the Greater Middle East". Moreover, I have also written frequently about how Syria is successfully dividing Europe from the US. In fact, most of the evidence Braude marshals in his article has already been catalogued here on "Syria Comment." Something Braude has made careful use of, which is to his credit.

The second, and more important, gripe is that Braude gets the real story wrong. He wants to blame Europe for being stupid, naive, or invidious in its support for Bashar's reformism and by going after Syrian contracts.

This is the same line that the Washington hawks used against Europe in the run up to the Iraq war. Braude refuses to learn from the Iraq experience. Europe did not want to invade Iraq alongside Washington because it did not believe the result would be advantageous to it. Europe, I would submit, was correct. Perhaps it is too early to determine whether invading Iraq was in the best interests of the United States - many Americans continue to argue that it was the right thing to do for long-term American interests - but Europe called its interests as it saw them. America went it alone in Iraq, which was its choice. This time around Washington must listen to Europe, and Europe is saying loud and clear: "Bashar is our best bet."

Braude doesn't like that message. He advises Washington to send "a clear message of solidarity with the 1.5 million-strong [Kurdish] community [in Syria]. He claims dividing Kurd from Arab in Syria would

send shock waves throughout the country. Such bold measures are necessary precisely because Assad seems less and less likely to self-destruct.
Braude wants to send Washington on a fool’s errand, all the while accusing Europe of being the fool for not joining in such a policy. He also argues that Farid Ghadry is the man Washington should support to carry out regime-change in Syria (see my last post and link to Braude's previous TNR article on Ghadry).

Ghadry completely overestimates the Syrian opposition. It is not ready to do any heavy lifting and is in complete disarray. Braude is giving bad advice. The US should listen to Europe for a change. Perhaps it is correct this time?

Here is Braude's article:

Nobody's Fool
by Joseph Braude
New Republic Online

Syria's leader, according to numerous Middle East experts, is a bumbling fool. "President Bashar al Assad of Syria has lately been doing everything possible to make himself an ex-dictator," wrote Robert Satloff at TNR Online last month. "No one is taking Bashar seriously," argued Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist now on a Fulbright in Damascus and Beirut. "He has no credibility and is locked into a dialogue of the deaf with Washington." By permitting foreign fighters to flow across Syria into Iraq and supporting militant groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, say observers, he has earned the Bush administration's contempt. And in cracking down on anti-Syria politicians in Lebanon this spring to the point of allegedly assassinating billionaire ex-president Rafik al-Hariri, Assad caused the United States and France to unite against him--setting in motion a chain of events that led to Syria's humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon.

The result, according to Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami, is that "the current Syrian regime is truly alone in the world," lacking even a friendly Arab autocrat to throw Assad a line. Meanwhile, the June congress of Syria's ruling Baath Party, which Assad also leads, did little to placate domestic dissidents--who some observers believe are now emboldened to stick it to the regime from within. Farid Ghadry, Washington-based president of the Reform Party of Syria, argued last week that Assad's Damascus opponents are expressing a "crescendo of criticism," and that "[g]iven the dynamics of Syrian society today, this Syrian regime will not last another six months." Perhaps Satloff summed up the prevailing impression of Assad best when he paraphrased a Damascus-based refusenik as saying, "[I]f the Assads were the modern-day Corleones, Hafez dreamed of having Michael succeed him but was stuck with Fredo."

But these views underestimate the staying power of the present regime in Syria. To be sure, its brutal tactics in Beirut this spring were a crippling miscalculation. But more recent moves by Damascus suggest that Assad and his brain trust are learning from their mistakes in a manner that serves their narrow interests. Assad is harnessing the country's modest economic leverage and tweaking its policies in the region with the likely aim of driving a new wedge between Europe and the United States. He has reached out to some of his neighbors in an attempt to ease their misgivings about his rule. And shifting attitudes toward the regime outside Syria, coupled with a new wave of crackdowns inside Syria, have had the effect of demoralizing the country's dissidents--dimming prospects for a serious challenge to Assad from within.

All of which is to say that Assad may yet outsmart his fiercest opponents in Washington--not by confronting them and winning but by dodging them and surviving. It would certainly be easier for America if Bashar Assad were a fool. Unfortunately, he may be cannier than we think.

Assad's chances of holding onto power stand to increase if there's trans-Atlantic disunity on the question of whether to isolate him. So it's good news for Assad that contrary to American policy, a June 15 statement by the Paris-based Interparliamentary European Security and Defense Assembly finds "that it is in the interests of peace in the region not to isolate Syria, a 'country on the axis of evil,' which is being threatened by the United States." Apparently, this past spring's trend of Assad-bashing in Europe--French President Jacques Chirac famously predicted that the Syrian regime would not survive a withdrawal from Lebanon--is now over. The continent's leaders are looking for reasons to do business with the Syrian chief again now that he has withdrawn from Lebanon. And Assad has been providing them with reasons--both economic and political.

On the economic front, the Syrian government has been vigorously courting Europe's private sector--from the top down as well as the bottom up. Last week Syria won an "association agreement" with the European Union valued at a billion dollars--defeating an effort by pro-American Syrian exiles to derail it. The regime had made commitments to a visiting EU parliamentary delegation earlier in the month, including the release of political prisoners and granting of citizenship to 200,000 dispossessed Syrian Kurds. The agreement, a component of the EU's Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, puts Syria on track to join a free-trade zone envisioned for 2010. Not only is it a boon to Syria, it comes none too soon for European entrepreneurs who are clamoring to do business with the Assad regime. In Germany, for example, the construction company Plabis GmbH recently submitted a proposal to build a new railway connecting Syria's west coast to the eastern provinces. A smaller company from the economically beleaguered former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt aspires to build a new beltway around Damascus to help solve the city's traffic problems. Meanwhile, in Cyprus earlier this week, Syria's trade minister courted his counterpart and won agreements to promote commerce, solar energy, and joint investment projects. To argue that Syria is "truly alone in the world" is to underestimate the allure of Syrian money on a continent that's increasingly interdependent with the Middle East.

On the political front, Assad has moved, in effect, to check off a few boxes on a longstanding list of Western demands. This week, for example, he met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Syrian relations have historically been strained because Syria opposes the PLO's recognition of Israel. Assad reportedly broke with tradition and offered to help coax some of the militant Palestinian factions--long sheltered by Damascus--to go back to Palestine and join a new "national unity government." To accusations that Syria turns a blind eye to anti-American militants as they cross the Syrian-Iraqi border, Assad offered concrete responses this week: The Syrian government claims it clashed with a group of militants near Damascus, including former bodyguards of Saddam Hussein. The country's official news agency also reported that Syrian forces arrested 34 militants and killed another near the Lebanese border Sunday.

Some skeptics in Washington are likely to interpret these official Syrian news items as nonsense--and perhaps rightly so. For European governments, on the other hand, the stories may offer justification for a change in policy they are already predisposed to make. These developments, then, could easily spark a split in American and European stances towards Syria--which is, of course, exactly what Assad wants. Pretty shrewd work for a modern-day Fredo Corleone.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Assad and his team are working hard to mend historic neighborhood rifts--and building on what friendships the regime already has. These diplomatic moves, which similarly fuse economic and political leverage, are making it harder for Washington to isolate Syria in the region.

Consider Iraq, where an elderly former Syrian ambassador to the country led talks last week on reopening an embassy in Baghdad--after 25 years without one. The old man is not on a fool's errand; his initiative stands to be bolstered by several other projects involving Syria that the Iraqi government values highly. First, since mid-June, Syria has generously channeled 670 million cubic meters of water down the Euphrates into Iraq--well in excess of its required quota under the prevailing accord. Iraqis need this water badly given the poor state of the country's irrigation channels and reservoir. Second, Iraq is committed to a valuable oil pipeline project now underway between Iran and Syria--part of the Europe-backed pipeline deal that aims to use the three countries to deliver fuel from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

With these and other ventures on tap, you'd almost forget that Iraq is supposed to be at odds with Syria over its alleged track record of letting insurgents cross the border. Forgive and forget, apparently. "It is unfair," said a former Iraqi interior minister at a press conference in Damascus this week, "to hold Syria responsible for both borders' security. ... Syria has offered every possible help and support to preserve Iraq's security, stability, and unity." These sentiments were echoed by no less an enemy of the Iraqi insurgency than former Iraqi premier Ayad Allawi. At a news conference in Cairo last week, he called for the two countries to set up a buffer zone together along the border, and made a point of taking the heat off Syria for the crimes of insurgents it has hosted. "There are gunmen who are infiltrating the Iraqi-Syrian border," he said, "but this does not necessarily mean that they are doing so with the support of the Syrian government. Many are abusing Syrian hospitality to work against Iraq."

In Washington, where the burden of policing Iraq has been hammering away at Bush's approval ratings, there's less and less desire to obstruct this détente between Iraq and Syria--even if it amounts to a major asset for the Assad regime. Some analysts, in fact, see a possibility that Assad may be a potential part of the solution to the Iraq problem--a problem, of course, which Syria is widely believed to have had a hand in causing. At the Brookings Institution last month, Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius observed:

I think that the strategy the Syrians have decided on is to go first to Baghdad, if you will. The route to America is through Baghdad. If they can establish a bilateral security relationship with the Al-Ja'fari government that begins to produce some results on the ground that the Americans see, that that may change people's minds in Washington.

The Bush administration, for its part, appears to be hedging its bets. In response to a question during her recent overseas trip, Condoleezza Rice declined to use the term "regime change" to characterize White House hopes for Syria, saying instead that Syrian "behavior must change." On both sides of the Atlantic, therefore, Assad's alleged incompetence has somehow not earned him the abject pariah status that is commonly imputed to him.

Barring a foreign invasion and occupation of Syria, then, hopes for a new government in Damascus rest on the courage of the Syrian people to bring about change from within. As I noted back in April, Syria under the Assad clan's Baath Party differs from Iraq under Saddam's Baath Party in that Syrians are vastly better informed of events outside their country: Satellite television is prevalent in the cities, and Internet use is common among the wealthy and the educated. Yet the availability of information is a double-edged sword: Just as Syrians may be emboldened by outside claims that their ruler is weak, so too may they be demoralized by outside vindications of their ruler's strength. Thus Europe's easing of tensions with Assad, Rice's eschewing of the term "regime change," and the Syrian government's increasingly normalized relations with Iraq might all contribute to a dashing of Syrian hopes that the Assad clan is on its way out. Add to these outside developments a new wave of crackdowns by the regime on domestic opposition--as Annia Ciezadlo described in the most recent issue of TNR--and an unhappy picture emerges: a summer of defeatism and despair for Syrian reformers.

You can hear it in the very dissident voices so often hailed as standard bearers by people in Washington. Take Ammar Abdulhamid, Satloff's source for the quip comparing Assad to Fredo Corleone. His blog entires following the Baath Party congress in June reflect a higher estimation of Assad's faculties--a notion that the young leader has come into his own. In a play on words--Assad means "lion" in Arabic--Abdulhamid writes, "No longer a lion cub, ours is now the real grown thing." The blog, written in English, also conveys his personal sense of impending doom:

[I]f I should get jailed one day for these blog entries, for my newspaper articles or for my activities with the Tharwa Project, among other things, there should be no doubt that I will have earned it. Whether I deserve it or not, in the moral sense, is a different matter. ... [T]here is something ominous in the air, I am not really sure what to make of it, I mean there is nothing really concrete, just a vague feeling that something bad is about to happen... [italics in original]

Nor is Abdulhamid alone in his anticipation of harsh treatment. Another Damascus blogger, writing in Arabic in mid-June, referred to a BBC report that Microsoft in China had begun blocking the use of terms like "democracy," "freedom," and "human rights" in its MSN blogging software on behalf of the Chinese government. The blogger anticipated that Assad's regime would soon make similar arrangements:

I can imagine the words that will be filtered by the Syrian MSN: democracy, freedom, free elections ... emergency law, state security court, intelligence, political security, prisons, arrests, human rights ... prisoners of conscience, Damascus spring ... corruption, change, dream, hope, nation.

In contrast to dissident Egyptian blogs these days, which increasingly serve as a medium to enhance coordination among anti-government activists, Syrian blogs are serving less as a revolutionary tool and more as a coping mechanism--a valve for the anonymous release of feelings that can't be expressed anywhere else. They are at times deeply sad and moving--but not, at least for now, signals of a feisty opposition movement.

Syria, in short, is no picnic, and its ruler is not the fool many believe him to be. The cause of deposing Baath rule there would be well served by an injection of realism on this score--because exuberant claims that dramatic change is imminent evidently have not served to embolden a people that knows otherwise.

True, there are portions of the country where a spirit of restlessness looms large--and where Assad has much to worry about. Last year, for instance, riots that broke out in a Kurdish region of the country claimed 36 lives. Syria's dispossessed Kurds understand that a massive uprising against the regime--should they manage to organize it--could well unite much of the world against Assad again, as it did in Lebanon a few months ago. If the United States sends a clear message of solidarity with this 1.5 million-strong community, it could send shock waves throughout the country. Such bold measures are necessary precisely because Assad seems less and less likely to self-destruct. And if Western leaders believe otherwise, then it's they who will be playing the fool.


At 7/11/2005 03:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of points to add to your good picking apart of Braude's piece. He puts a lot of emphasis on supposed European economic interests in preserving the Assad regime, with particular reference to "entrepreneurs" keen to exploit private investment opportunities. He supports this with one reference to a proposal for a railway project, which is most unlikely to get anywhere given the lack of adequate supports in Syria for complex private investment deals (and the lack of any record worth mentioning). Syria certainly has some long-term potential, but remains a very small market for European exporters. The EU is putting some resources into financial sector reform, with France leading the way. The appointment of Adib Mayaleh (ex-staff of the French embassy in Damascus) as governor of the central bank was an interesting pointer in this regard. He, along with Adbullah al-Dardari, has shown that he appreciates the scale of the task ahead in modernising the Syrian economy. However, they really are just scratching the surface. I also doubt whether Syria has actually signed its association agreement with the EU -- it was initialled last October, but I do not find any evidence that it has been signed. Even after the signing, it will need to be ratified by all 25 EU member states.

Other points: the scenario of a Syrian Kurd uprising bringing about the regime's collapse seems highly fanciful (also what would the Turks think about that);
I get irritated at Satloff claiming the Fredo joke as his own -- I first read about it in comments by Walid Jumblatt in Jounieh some tome before Satloff's article, and I assume the joke's being doing the rounds for some time before that; finally, although possibly irrelevant, wasn't there a story about Joseph Braude and some missing Iraqi artefacts last year?

At 7/11/2005 04:30:00 AM, Anonymous Tarek said...

Yeah that was him stealing Iraqi artifacts. I also think the economic prizes Syria is offering to the EU are mostly insignificant and if the US is REALLY adamant on regime change. The EU would not go out of its way to step in between a small country like Syria and the worlds only super-power.

Syria can shift attention temporarily by providing the EU with various carrots. But at the end of the day, it’s the wheeling and dealing with the US that will buy Syria the needed time to over come this Neo-con era.

President Assad is heading ever so surely to total control and analysts who say otherwise are misreading the situation. He will definitely need this control if he is to support moderate reforms and thwart off foreign hostilities.

At 8/29/2005 10:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand the avoidance of the Assassin tag for this regime. It strikes me that the Muslim world would tremble as much as the West at mention of this sect. Assad's own sect is a small minority in Syria and it strikes me that opposition to this Assassin sect would be far easier to find than Kurds willing to do the deed for ethnic enmities.


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