Once considered the heartland of the Arab world the Syrian nation was often spoken of as the linchpin of any agreement between the Western nations and the Arab world. No peace with Israel was possible unless the Syrians regime agreed…this was the conventional wisdom that prefaced every standard modern history of the Middle East and Arab world. Syria, despite its well deserved reputation of an unstable state has been able to enjoy a rather cozy relationship with Western journalists and academics. Since it has been a very closed society and paranoid about security, inside information has been hard to come by. To attempt to do so required the blessings of the inner circle of Syrian governments (and there were many: there had been more than 40 since 1946) Western diplomats and academics constantly dangled the baubles of Western international approbation and prospect of cloying editorials in the Western “quality press” if only the Syrians would relent and be nice…and if unable to do that, then attempt to do better with public diplomacy. But most of the media and academics, particularly those relied on, like Patrick Seale promoted the usual theme which basically went like this…… Yes Assad is tough, even brutal at times, but the alternative is so much worse. So we had decades of academics, journalists and diplomats hanging around Damascus hoping for a interview with the beloved leader ,Hafez Assad.
All journalists know that their ability to break out of the pack depends on getting access to the right people but the way to make that impossible is to criticize the “great leader” of the regime. Hafez Al Assad was a particularly wily and inscrutable leader to deal with, and ruled Syria with an iron hand.When Assad died and Bashir was yanked from his practice as an ophthalmologist in London, the world wondered…could this pencil -necked geek rule this unruly country? For years papa Assad had been grooming his son, Basil as his successor. Basil was everything Bashir was not, handsome, daring, an equestrian of some note. He was the darling of the Christian minority and the smart set in Damascus. Alas and Alack, driving around the Damascus airport, drunk and irresponsible as always, he crashed and killed himself. As Fouad Ajami so eloquently described it, while some Syrians might have been disappointed, the Westerner observers were not. Surely a Western educated, wimpy looking eye doctor in London will bring Western values to this blood drenched land….. or so the thinking went. And in the beginning he performed the necessary cosmetic ploys to make this seem possible. Strolling around the bright lights of Damascus without the usual battalion of security that Papa Hafez always had, throwing a few secular sounding sops to the elite, releasing a few political opponents of the regime brought plaudits of a new era dawning in Syria.
The promise of a more liberal Syria seemed to be a reality when Bashar Assad kicked out Rifaat al Assad, brother of of Hafez and a murderous thug similar to Uday Hussein in Iraq. The commander of the brutal and feared “Defense Companies”, the Praetorian guard of Alawite kinsmen who led the fight and slaughter of the equally barbarous Muslim Brotherhood in their rebellions against the Assad regime, Rifaat was very proud to take credit for ridding Syria of the Brotherhood scourge. He apparently entertained notions of succeeding his brother. But he was too murderous and mentally unbalanced for the coterie of advisors, thugs but sensible thugs, around young Assad. He was unacceptable to the ruling elite. No doubt they figured the young Assad would be more pliable and a weak reed. Apparently, however, some of Papa Assad’s genes have surfaced and Bashar has learned to be almost as duplicitous, and brutal, if not as smart as his father.
Importantly for winning over the useful fools not only in Syria but the “informed” elite of the West as well, he married a winsome lassie of pure Arabian Syrian stock, highly educated, pursuing a PHD. and most of all a Sunni. Since Syria is about 80 % Sunni, and generally they hate the Alawi as social inferiors and not real Muslims, this was an important ( hopefully) unifying step. She was – for a few years – also quite a Western celebrity. Asma al Assad was accorded a puff ball interview with Vogue in 2011 entitled “A Rose in the Desert. ” despite Vogue magazine’s desperate attempts to erase it from the memory it still exists. sample paragraph;
“Asma Al Asad is glamorous, young, and very chic-freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and bling dazzle of Middle Eastern Power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination; a thin, long – limbed beauty with a trained analytical mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her ” the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.”
The point of this is not to poke fun at Vogue. After all the interviewer, Joan Juliette Buck, got an interview that most journalists would kill for. In fact it is a graphic testimony to the slavish adulation the media must proffer to get those up – close and personal interviews of Middle Eastern dictators, and also indicative of the mysterious affection so many Middle East journalists and “experts” had for this malicious regime. Moreover, as Barry Rubin so succinctly surfaced in his excellent book “The Truth about Syria, American officials, especially James Baker, kept sucking up to the Assads and excusing their murderous involvement with Iran’s terrorism program. Others including General Colin Powell and Secretary of State Warren Christopher were also misled by Syrian promises of working toward peace with Israel. The regime had nor has had, any intention of establishing peace with Israel. The forever war with Israel is essential to the well being of the regimes of Syria, trying to hold together a former Ottoman territory composed of warring tribes, sects, and classes.
As Patrick Seale in his sometimes hagiographic view of Assad ( Asad: The Struggle for The Middle East)- but also a must book for interested readers) put it, ” More than any statesman of this day, Hafiz al Asad represents the Arab’s aspiration to be masters of their destiny in own region.” He goes on to write, “Pax hebraica funded and armed by Washington has only produce mayhem on a large scale.” So this is basically the “Experts” brief. So in the view of the professional Arabphiles, Assad is the victim, only trying to maintain a defense against a bad environment created by the “imperialists” and Israeli aggression. So it seems in the quest to do this he has tried to subvert Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan…with success in some cases.
The Syrian “experts” in the US to whom U.S. governmental officials paid attention to, Patrick Seale, Joshua Landis, and others were always ready to promote a narrative that included the bedrock belief that the inability to get Syria on our side was the fault of the U.S. , particularly its “pro-Israeli” policies. The doyens of American foreign policy, such as Strobe Talbot, Martin Indyk, and the “think tanks” all push for renewed negotiations, as advocated by Flynt Leverett, “Inheriting Syria; Bashar’s Trial by Fire ( a good book with poor conclusions). According to Leverett, all that Bashar needed from Washington for the peace process to work, particularly on a U.S.-Syrian strategic package, was in Bashar’s statement, “some words, some rhetoric.” In other words, effusive praise of the glorious history of Syria under the heroic leadership the Assads, uttered by American officials would do the trick, This is ridiculous. It is the old and useless application of a cultural trait which posits that words are all Arabs care about. Yes words, and language are very important in Arab society, but the worldly wise and suspicious Arab/ Muslim leaders are much too astute to buy into American attempts to act like Muslims or silly gifts like the cake offered to Khomeini by the clueless Reagan advisors.
When the 2011 “Arab Spring” erupted in Syria, the early concessions to the protestors seemed like the death knell of the regime because the history of the Middle East is that any concessions by a despotic regime is only seen as weakness and results in greater violence and confidence among the rebels. That was the lesson in Egypt. But in Syria, Assad’s goons, mostly the Alawite special units and paramilitary organizations quickly began murderous suppression of the revolt, turning it into the Syrian civil war which continues to this day. The early expert prognostications were that Assad was doomed. With most of his army composed of ill-trained Sunni recruits, and an incompetent officer corps, according to the experts “he was a dead man walking.”
Into this quagmire of tribal, religious, ideological warfare, the presence of the Islamists of various brands, indirectly assisted Assad. The urban Sunnis of Syria, while mostly moderately anti Assad, and sympathetic to conservative Islam, wanted no part of the Islamist world view, neither did the Druze, or Kurds, Christians, or of course, the infidel Alawis. Assad was able to make use of the useful fools of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a of Iraq to help fight his war against his opponents. Central to the success of his forces, was unqualified Iranian support, a support which had been, and still is integral to his regime maintenance. Dating from the days of the ill fated Marine expedition to Beirut, Iranian involvement in anti American attacks was evident. The catalogue of Iranian sponsored Syrian attacks on Americans has continued during the “30 year war with Iran.” Unfortunately it has been a totally one sided war with Syria/Iran always on the offense and American administrations seeking accommodation.
The feeble attempts of the United States to respond forcibly to the murderous attacks and innumerable provocations has most often ended in humiliation. Example abound: the disastrous attempt to free the hostages held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the shooting down of an American A6-E fighter a necessitating a trip by Jesse Jackson to bring home the one of the two pilots shot down. Why one asks have we endured such punishment and simply come back for more like an inflatable dummy? There are a couple of salient reasons.
In the case of Syria much of it revolves around the the view so eloquently written by Philip Hitti that Syria is the heart of the Arab world in spirit, history, and intellectual leadership. It has become embedded in academic and diplomatic circles inhibiting Western approaches to the continual provocations. Notwithstanding the Iranian/Syrian orchestrated attacks on the Marine barracks, and the U.S Embassy , the murders of Marine Colonel Rich Higgins, and the CIA station Chief in Beirut, William Buckley, etc. etc. the Bush administration went ahead inviting Syria to the 2007 Annapolis Peace conference, one of the endless attempts to solve the Israeli- Palestinian issue.
Condoleezza Rice mentioned in her book, referring to the deputy Foreign minister of Syria, No Higher Honor, “….. I made sure to treat him with respect.” She observed that by sending only the deputy, it was Syria’s way of having, “one foot in the international community and one foot in terrorism.” While Secretary Rice was convinced of Iran’s blatant involvement in terrorism, the U.S. government, despite unequivocal evidence that Iran was pulling the strings on the Syrian puppet, reserved final judgement, and in fact it took a court case (Bank Merkazi vs. Peterson) to fully expose Iranian ties to terrorism committed by Syrians with the use of Hezbollah and Amal thugs.
The CIA, at the same time, already tainted by political preferences, undermined President Bush’s anti -Iranian push in the international arena by an outlandishly foolish National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 opining that Iran had suspended its Nuclear weapons program. It has remained a question whether our intelligence was that bad or was it another political move to undermine President G.W. Bush, whom the elitist CIA treated with condescension.
The most glaringly reason for the continued American hands off policy on Iran has been the entrenched Obama administration’s view of Iran as the new linchpin of American interests in the Middle East. This attitude has permeated throughout our diplomatic service and perpetuated itself and a good part of the CIA as well. Based on the realist view of international affairs that nations only act in accordance with their interests and are therefore rational actors, the belief inculcated deep into diplomatic service is that Iran, despite its unruly behavior, simply needed the U.S coming to terms with its interests.
Lee Smith in small booklet “The Consequences Of Syria summarized the conduct of the Obama foreign policy officials toward Syria succinctly by plainly exposing the fact that the tepid American policy toward Syria was based totally on not upsetting the apple cart of the secret deals with Iran.. Syria was recognized as a fundamental prize by the Iranian expansionists and Obama was of the embedded belief that with enough inducements of various kinds Iran could be brought into the civilized world. The gushy tributes paid to John Kerry, the prime architect of the Iranian nuclear deal, ( JCPOA) in William Burns book, The Back Channel highlights the dreamy attitude ( in my view) of the negotiators that an Iranian – American agreement would usher in a new era for the Middle East. The attitude of the officials was always based on the premise that we could change the behavior of Iran, and therefore, as the tail of the Iranian kite, Syria as well. The prevailing attitude was that tiptoeing around Iranian sensibilities, and fawning camaraderie with Iranian officials at meetings, conferences, with photo ops of smiling Iranian and American officials, and most all….. cold cash, if needed, would bring the Iranians around to Western standards of behavior. The American negotiators would also ignore continued provocations such as putting seized American sailors on public display in humiliating postures. Most importantly, by agreeing, ostensibly, to suspend nuclear weapons production, Iran was given the green flag to step up their irredentism by the traditional Iranian way of war, subterfuge, subversion, misdirection and use of surrogate forces for the nasty active warfare requirements.
As Lee Smith points out the problem with Iran is not its behavior; it’s the nature of the regime. From my long studies of the Iranian history, It is an intrinsically aggressive regime with an element of enduring apoplectic attitude toward Western “imperialism” aggravated by typical Iranian hubris best described as the Iranian belief that they are, as one long time observer of Iran wrote, the center of the universe. Under the present Iranian military-mullah symbiotic regime, no behavior change is feasible. as a result no change in the Syrian satrapy can be expected ……unless….. the Turks confront Russian and Iranian control there. That is the next post.