Of Lions and Termites!

The debate in the comments section below perhaps got unnecessarily heated, but Alex did make some “sober” points that I simply need to respond to equally as soberly I hope.

Indeed, demanding anything like “simultaneous goodwill gestures between the Syrian government and its Lebanese opponents,” and advising that “[i]f the Americans wanted peace in the Middle East, they should make a deal with Bashar,” seem based on the erroneous assumption that Bashar and his henchmen are indeed capable of behaving like true statesmen and not like the sectarian thugs that they are. People who insist on looking at the Assads of Syria as statesmen are in an unfortunate state of denial. Bashar has been out of his depth from the moment he stepped into office, Maher is an unreliable hothead, and Assef is a man obsessed with his sectarian identity and with the necessity of keeping Alawites in control of Syria at all costs.

How do I know this? Because I was involved as an advisor (to the American side to be specific) in a number of initiatives meant to help jumpstart the Syrian-Israeli peace track and establish effective conduits for dialogue and communications between the Syrian regime and the Bush Administration. All these initiatives met with rejection the moment they landed in Bashar’s lap, regardless of the public gestures and declarations he was making at the time, such as shaking the hand of the Israeli President during Pope John Paul II funeral and asserting that his regime was ready to negotiate with the Israelis without on the basis of the Madrid Conference alone.

The most important such initiative was the one proposed by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in mid 2004 (that is just at the time when I was doing my first fellowship at Saban). And Martin took the matter to the Syrian President directly in October of 2004 in order to avoid any miscommunication or misunderstanding, and to avoid having to continuously assume that someone, such as the perennial fall guy in these matters, our country’s official court jester and Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Charaa, prevailed upon the President and turned him against the initiative. We also wanted to make sure to get some of the Syrian advisors who had taken part in previous negotiations with Israel, because had an interest in really starting from scratch. But these people understandably needed to have some green light from Bashar before they could commit.

Martin explained to Bashar at the time that serious interest exist in all relevant circles in Washington and Tel Aviv to convene a series of quiet meetings in Washington, DC involving Syrian, Israeli and American policy-advisors in the hope of preparing a roadmap of sorts for Syrian-Israeli peace and for improving Syrian-American relations. The people involved on the Israeli and American side, Martin assured Bashar (and I can, of course, vouch for that, as I knew all and met most of them), will be high level advisors close to both Bush and Sharon and, as such, will be able to accurately reflect the viewpoints of their respective administrations, ensuring that the end product that will come out of the meetings is indeed salable to both. If Bashar can, therefore, nominate equally credible people on the Syria side, the end product is bound to be appropriate from the Syrian perspective as well. In all cases, there was really little to lose and much to gain for all sides.

Well, Bashar didn’t think so, and he shut down the entire idea without giving any explanation, except to say that he doesn’t think any good can come out of secret negotiations! The assertion would have been more believable had previous efforts in which I was involved not being shut down on the pretense that Syrians prefer a more quiet diplomacy while Israelis insist on going public from day one.

In other words, on the issue of the Syrian-Israeli peace and Syrian-American relations Bashar was all talk and no action. Actually, this was Bashar’s story all along on almost everything including the issue of economic reform and the fight against corruption. The only exception in this regard is the issue of crackdown on democracy and human rights activists. Here indeed, Bashar was all action.

So, all these people who still look at Bashar as a statesman frankly surprise me. It seems more wishful thinking on their part, because it helps them avoid dealing with the implications of his inadequacy, not to mention his thuggish and authoritarian predilections.

Maher, too, suffer from these shortcomings and predilections, multiplied by a factor of ten and with added bonus of hotheadedness.

As for Assef, whom I believe is the key player behind most of the policies currently adopted by the Assads, well, my knowledge of his character are first hand and all too recent, and not just based on indirect contacts or remembrances of brief interactions that took place way back in high school (for yes, Bashar, Maher, the lesser known Majd, and yours truly attended the same high school in Damascus).

In my second meeting with Assef, he held in his hand translations of a number of articles and interviews in which I referred to Bashar as a “Fredo Corleone” and an “idiot.” Yet Assef never mentioned or seemed interested in this matter. What ticked him off were my calls for a civil disobedience campaign and my predictions that under Bashar’s rule the country was headed for a civil war. The Tharwa Project, my work on minority-majority relations and my refusal to accept his proposal that Islamists of all stands are the common enemy and we should all unite against them in the name of secular virtues were the main problems.

The underlying topic of all our “talks” has consistently been the Sunni-Alawite divide. Assef referred to it variously as the rural-urban divide, a dichotomy along socioeconomic conditions, the secular-Islamist divides, but in the heat of the debate and as I refused to take his arguments at face value and continued to refute them, a certain “we-and-you” emerged that betrayed the whole thing: he is an Alawite and I am a Sunni, he has control, I have none, and my only way into the game (assuming, of course, that I wanted to be in the game) is on his own terms.

And his terms were/are: the Alawite will continue to rule from behind the existing facades, which will never altered in any significant manner so that people like me could never any idea that the existing situation cold ever be changed.

Indeed, it is Assef (and Bushra) who is the true ideological heirs of Hafez al-Assad. He is a committed Baathist and a committed believer in the necessity of continued Alawite rule, at ALL costs. This is why he is opposed to any attempt at playing around with the political structure of the current regime. He will not risk having the system that has been elaborated by Assad Sr. and, at such great cost, come tumbling down. Their “reform” agenda, which Bashar also subscribes to, is to give the Syrian people handouts in the form of occasional pay-hikes and “subsidized” housing projects, continue to co-opt reformers and opposition figures, and to centralize all powers more and more under the control of the Assad-Makhlouf clan who, in their eyes, have earned the right to that by adhering to the plans set by Assad Sr. people like Ali Haydar, Ali Duba, the late Ghazi Kanaan, and all other disgruntled Alawite officers, have lost this privilege because they showed more willingness to compromise with the Sunnis.

This willingness seems to have been spurred on by the belief that maintaining the status quo is simply untenable and that the best time to reach a compromise is NOW, a time when Alawite are still in control of the military and that Sunni radicalism, while having made many serious inroads into the Sunni communities, is still incapable of uniting the majority of Sunnis under its flag.

The struggle between the Assads and their opponents has always revolved around this issue, this is the real struggle that has been and still is taking place in the country, and this struggle takes primacy over all others and constitutes the prism through which everything else is examined by the Assads, and against which all other considerations are weighed and measured.

Throw in the economic considerations into the mix, and the related turf wars that usually take place in such circumstances, then, pray tell me, where is the capable and “honest” statesman that can sit down with “the Lebanese opponents” and the representatives of the American administration?

Bashar was tried numerous times and was found lacking, and Assef is, by his very ideological predilections, as anti-American and anti-reform as you can get. Assef’s willingness to contemplate dealing with the American at one point was simply an extension of Hafiz’own – more a reflection of momentary necessity than an ability to understand the inner workings of American politics and execute an ideological shift in one’s worldview.

In short, the Assads are not statesmen and can never be. If we really want what is good for our country, we have to deal with this glaring and unfortunate reality, with all its implications: the Assads need to go. We need to shake the system and break the stalemate. No, democracy will not be the immediate outcome here, let’s not deceive ourselves. But under the Assads, we have no hope of ever working for democracy, or anything for that matter. The Assads need to go so we can have a real start at something. And, no there are no guarantees. Those who want guarantees might as well stick with Bashar & Co. They can guarantee the persistence of a veneer of stability, though at the expense of our dignity, until such time when the whole thing comes crashing down on all our heads.

For the Assads are like termites, they tend to destroy their own home and seal their own fate. And ours as well of course, otherwise, why should any of us care?

15 thoughts on “Of Lions and Termites!

  1. Thank you for the Insights. Intolerant men often have trouble “listening” earnestly to others, i hope you dont take Assefs attitude at school personal. Persevere and goodluck: From a Lebanese looking for Justice, Democracy and Peace for all the Region. Regds, Bodhi.

  2. Thank you for the insights Ammar. However, I do not believe that Bashar’s rejection of a hand indirectly extended by an incumbent American President in October 2004, a month before a very tight re-election, should necessarily be considered immutable. Perhaps we shall find out…

  3. It is very sad when a people are willing to accept and offer sacrifice for one whose only qualification for the job is that he inherited it. What is doubly sad is that Bashar did not inherit a corporation but a living and breathing nation. !!!

  4. Thanks Ammar for taking the time to share your perspective. I have noticed your increasing frustration with the regime (or the “Assads”) from your interviews with western journalists the past year. When you first went back to Syria, you sounded more hopeful (NY Times coverage of your return story). I knew you had valid reasons for losing your faith in “the regime”Since I have been lucky enough to count among my best Syrian friends some of the following: main Sunni damascene families, Alawites, Ismaelis, Druze, Free Masons, Opus Dei, Assyrians, Armenians … I like to think that my personal opinion is an unbiased statistical average of the opinions of all these Syrian groups (weighted according to the relative size of each group in Syria). With your work in Tharwa project, you are exposed to the same groups on a larger scale, I’m sure. But I will still tell you about my conversation with an Alawite friend this morning after he read your post:Alawites are split on the current regime, people assume that they are all benefiting economically, while the fact is: most are still poor. Most of them also complain about Rami’s wealth. But they also complain about “for every Alawite millionaire, the regime produced Five Sunni millionaires with the same corruption”. Some Alawites call Bashar “Damscene Sunni boy” … Other than the fact he married a Sunni, they feel he is more interested in appealing to the Damascene Sunni families. Those in the Army are especially upset at him for not taking the same care that Hafez used to with the Army leadership.Many are genuinely scared from the Sunnis. They have been accustomed to the comfort level that comes with the fact Syria is led by Alawites. My friend wanted me to tell you that this is bigger than Syria, that it is an ideological difference between them and Sunni Islam which will never accept their Gnostic beliefs. They will not feel safe again with a Sunni leadership. He said, he agrees that it may not be fair that the regime is led by Alawites (a minority) but at least they do not judge Sunnis and their religious beliefs, and they guarantee their religious freedoms. He is pessimistic because he agrees with you that Syria might be heading towards a confrontation at some point in the future, but he does not know what to do … they just do not trust being governed by ANY Sunnis. He point the way Shia were governed by the Sunnis in the other Arab countries.My input now: I feel the “us and them” that you pushed Asef to admit is actually present on both sides. In private, Sunnis who publicly sound accommodating to the Alawites, are much less tolerant. I feel our society needs to learn to leave religion out of politics, otherwise it is an explosive formula … And not to mention, that the tendency to group people under either “traitors” or “regime supporters” is also a big obstacle to democracy … what kind of debate are we going to have if most of them will fit you in an extreme 2X2 matrix of1) Regime supporter and blasphemous2) Traitor and blasphemous3) Regime supporter and with a religious sectarian agenda4) Traitor with a religious sectarian agendaI believe that the current back and forth discussions I am reading are going nowhere. Whereas the possibility of real conflicts is getting more real. I do have a proposal to accommodate both sides… Syria continues to have a minority president backed by a secular army (like the situation in Turkey, which guarantees that the country stays secular) but they should manage in few years to conduct free multi-party parliamentary elections which hopefully would produce a strong Sunni prime minister who is in charge of the economy and who is accountable to parliament. So the minorities can get their assurances that the country remains secular, and the Sunni majority gets close to its fair share of power.I have another proposal that Tony would not like, but George Ajjan will support: within the next few years, Syria is allowed to develop its economy and tourism and its free press until it becomes a county appealing enough to offer the Lebanese a Union of some sort … something like Canada perhaps … where Ontario and Quebec have their own local governments but they both have one Canadian prime minister. If you merge back Syria and Lebanon (call it “Lebanon”, if you hate the sound of “Greater Syria”) then you have solved the two democracy challenges that the two countries face today: Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the Ikhwan in Syria … both would be neutralized in the resulting “country”.What do you think?

  5. Hi Alex, As you might expect I am quite familiar with the concerns raised by your Alawite friend, because they were raised by many of mine as well, and I am in fact quite sympathetic to them. Keeping the Alawites in charge of the system might safeguard the secular nature of the state, something that appeals not only to Alawites but to Druzes, Christians, Ismailites, Kurds and many secular Sunnis as well. Indeed, in my first meeting with Assef Chawkat I have proposed the idea of a bicameral assembly, where proportional representations determine who control the House of Representatives, while the Senate is made up of equal number of senators from the country’s different provinces. This will ensure that the majority in the Senate is made of representatives of minority groups. The Senate will be in charge of revising all laws passed by the House of Representatives to ensure that they don’t transgress against the secular nature of the State or issues of minority rights. The Senate will also control the Security apparatuses and the army. The President will be an Alawite and will have limited powers, while the daily affairs of the state will be run by the PM who will be chosen by the House of Representatives, meaning that the PM will most likely be an Arab Sunni Male. This formula, I thought, will allow moderate Islamist movements to control the House of Representatives without fearing for the basics rights of citizens, recreating the Turkish Model somehow. Assef Chawkat was very interested by the idea and he had me submitted to him in writing. And I did (an article based on the text of my proposal submitted to Assef appeared on the Tharwa site: http://arabic.tharwaproject.com/Main-Sec/Features/F_4_5_05/Ammar.htm). That was before the Baath Congress of May 2004. Yet, nothing came out of it. Still, Assef did later tell me that the idea inspired the creation of the Security Council that was formed after the Congress, made up of all those generals from the country’s myriad security apparatuses!!!!!That is the problem, Alex. In order for our suggestions to be heeded, we need statesmen to be on the receiving end, not thugs. I am not opposing the Assads because they are Alawites, I am opposing them because they are thugs. We need statesmen and technocrats, not matter how inept and even corrupt sometimes, to be in charge in our country so that such arrangements as you and I, among many others, are suggesting can find an appreciative ear or two. The Assads ears are just too deaf and their minds too numb and dumb for such ideas as ours. So, Alawites who are disgruntled with the rule of Assad should, therefore, begin to dialogue with their Sunni counterparts, if we cannot build bridges of trust between us, we will only be contributing to the destruction of the last vestiges of our social fabric, and facilitating the implosion of our country, with all the blood, gore and mayhem that this will inevitably entail. This is what we were working on through the Tharwa Project. We wanted to build such bridges of trust, because we knew that once people learned to trust each other, they will be able to work together, and the regime’s days will be numbered. You cannot talk about democracy and political reforms in our part of the world without addressing these issues.Do you see now why Assef was so suspicious of Tharwa and why he felt obliged to pout the squeeze on me? He is not THAT stupid, he knew that the whole purpose of our work was to dismantle the very base of their support and power, namely sectarian fears. Oh well, and while I may not be in Syria anymore, and while we may seem to have shut down our operations, we still maintain a quiet presence on the grounds, and still working on the same issues. Guess what? There are many Alawites in our team.

  6. Another point that I think needs to be mentioned here relates to the whole concept of the necessity of continued Alawite rule of Syria. I said below that I am sympathetic to it, and that I accept the idea that certain transitional arrangements which will effectively keep the Alawtie in charge of the military might indeed need to be made in order to alleviate Alawite fears vis-à-vis the Sunnis. But I need to stress here that these need to be transitional arrangements. Eventually, we do need to normalize things, otherwise the sectarian issue in the country will continue to fester. A friend of mine once told me that had it not been for Assad Sr. he would have been milking cows for a living today instead of practicing medicine. But this argument would sound much more convincing to me when we substitute the French for Assad Sr. the French empowered the Alawite, and that was one of their many unacknowledged positive contributions to the country. But the rise of Assad Sr. and the Alawite officer to power more or less halted the process of Alawite integration into Syrian society. The Alawite might be more visible and ubiquitous now, especially in state-run institutions, but they are also more segregated, and hated, sorry to say, than ever. There was never an Alawite question in Syria until the Alawite came to power. There was an urban-rural divide, but not a Sunni-Alawi one. True, the Sunnis never accepted Alawite believes and considered the Alawites as Kafirs and disdained just about everything about them, but the Sunnis felt the same about the Druzes, the Ismailites and the Twelvers as well. The Alawites were no exception, the Alawite became an exception when the Alawite officers came to power. What the Alawites need to get for themselves is exactly what the Druzes, the Ismailites and the Twelvers have managed to get: recognition of their legitimate right to exist as an independent religious community with its own special teaching and laws. Guess what? In their national program, the Muslim Brotherhood did indeed give the Alawites such a recognition. If the Alawites wants the MB to voice this recognition, with all its implications, more loudly, they need to talk to the Brotherhood. They need to trust not only the secular Sunnis, but they need to establish relations and bridges with the more religious types as well, even, no, especially when they tend to have political ambitions. Perhaps more than any other group in Syria, the Alawites need to be more proactive and less reactive. They are still powerful enough today to get a favorable deal for themselves, one that can end the country’s abnormal situation and help reintegrate the Alawite community into the fabric of Syrian society. This issue is not going to disappear tomorrow, and the Alawite position is growing weaker by the hour. On a different note, Tony, please do take it easy and do keep the debate rather civil. This comment section is beginning to remind me of the Opposite Direction program on al-Jazeerah TV – too much trash-talk and not enough substance. I think you can easily rip Alex’s suggestion apart without the insults. In fact, I think you need to do it, because Alex is not the only person in Syria who thinks along these lines, and if there are any problems with their thinking, I believe you are the best person to point this out. But, please, don’t be so obnoxious about it, my friend, otherwise you will only be weakening your own arguments.

  7. Of course. It is just that when someone condescendingly approaches you in all their pompous undue confidence, about how they have it all figured out, yet carry nothing but incredibly nonsensical half-baked and discredited theories, and talk down to you about “practical” and “realist” “solutions,” and dare to even diagnose your psyche, intentions, and such, then somehow, they become deserving of the same contempt they dish out, as their nonsense gets ripped and demolished.Yet this is not my space, and so I’ll refrain from commenting. And I disagree with you. It’s not my place to tell them or any Syrian anything. That’s your job I’m afraid. Besides, part of the problem is that they do see people like me as “Neocons” who are coming to destroy Syria. No. I’ll just stick in making sure these types don’t come up with theories about Lebanon, like our friend here. You handle Syria!

  8. ok, back after having Sushi and green tea, sitting in the non-smoking section (Tony).Ammar, don’t worry, despite Tony’s persistent efforts to make me discredit his opinions, I still believe he often gets things right. Besides, the last few were funny … I am assuming he is being semi-friendly.Tony, at the time I started reading your “Après Assad Le Deluge?” but since you have spent the first 3 pages quoting Michael Young to “prove” that Bashar is evil, I somehow lost interest at some point and missed the good stuff that I only read today at the end of that piece. I will repeat to you my advice, since I realize by now that you think very hightly of my Syrian opinions:ENOUGH! … we understand and your opinion of Assad. But we had enough of you quoting the very impressive, but identical Michael Young opinions then ridiculing Juan Cole and Joshua Landis. If you got sick of my two-page comment earlier … imagine the total of your repetitive and predictable comments over the past 500 days for example? I have no doubt your writing style is 10 times more interesting than mine (since I am only a Syrian Engineer) but that does not mean you can go on forever repeating the same carefully tuned masterpiece and backing it up with the equally repetitive Michael Young editorial of the week.Allow me please to advocate again the benefits of listening and opening up to your opponents and critics. Using Martin Kramer’s example, you discarded his recommendation for “my” website by picking the one negative word in it. This is what you do, and this is where you limit yourself. The fact is, he added a link to the site in his “recommended” links section. In it he said “Slick Syrian propaganda, Great image archive” .. the result is that hundreds of Israeli intellectuals clicked on it and forwarded it to their colleagues and some of them even signed “Syria’s Guestbook” … go there if you want and read the names of some history professors from Ben Gurion University and Tel Aviv’s university who unlike you, were open minded enough to see what that Syrian site was all about. Those were among my favorite comments in the guestbook … But sadly, you, representing a large number of Lebanese, are dwelling in darkness … with your inability to see anything positive from those you dislike.My “unity” proposal for Syria and Lebanon is much more positive than your analogy to the failed union of Egypt and Syria … I assume in your life you did not always quit trying after a failed first attempt. The word “unity” is too big. I limited it by proposing a local government in each country. And I specified that it could only be potentially feasible few years in the future IF Syria turns into this attractive neighbor somehow. And I implied that it should not be a Syria eating Lebanon type of accommodation by saying “call it Lebanon if you want” … But you prefer to be automatically negative about that idea because it has the S-word in it. Have you heard that borders are fading across the globe? … North American Free trade? European Union? … those are possible, but a Syria-Lebanon semi-unity is the stupidest idea that can only come from an equally stupid Syrian Engineer.On the other hand, you seem to be positive about the Lebanese dialog …. About Lebanon’s 4 million people (including a large percentage of non employed, too young to work …etc) ability to easily pay back the 45 Billion debt. Basically, you believe that as long as Syrians are not involved, things will magically fall into place peacefully and in an atmosphere built on the historically proven foundation of wise and clean leadership of the current Lebanese leaders such as Amin Gemayel, Geagea, Jumblat … The Middle East the way it is now (including your sacred Lebanese borders) is not making much sense anymore …. I don’t see those borders, I see realities across them (realities, again … like the sick mentality of revenge across the whole middle east) You are right that the borders created its own real division between Lebanon and Syria, but there are equally real divisions inside Lebanon itself and inside Syria itself … there is a good chance (not a prediction) that your borders will be modified one way or the other. If you do not widen your scope beyond Michael Young’s editorials, you will miss the trends that will affect you and your beloved Lebanon. I honestly respect your abilities, and I hope one day you’ll apply the same analytical skills, minus those distortion filters you currently have turned ON.Again, if you choose to reply, I will leave the last word to you. But please change your broken record about Belro7 bildam … If you count the number of times I said “Israel’ you’ll realize there is no basis for your ridicule.

  9. And the other shoe drops. The twit faced with the utter demolition of his pathetic “arguments” falls back on what Bashar falls back on as well (behold the Bashar generation!). A pathetic show of complete bankruptcy.Apparently I need to continue drilling this on my blog because you still can’t fathom it.You have also given me some pathological material here to rip your “reasoning” to shreds for the next year, but I’ll refrain from doing so. I rest my case, you’ve just proven it all correct!I repeat, it was my mistake to give you more than two seconds. Pathetic, yet predictable, display of bankruptcy.

  10. And by the way, don’t flatter yourself. You didn’t read the post at all, and I doubt you read it now. The post has two short references to Young at the middle and end, NOT the beginning.But then again, I have told you this before, and you have shown it with my email: you have incredibly POOR reading skills. You read what you want, and that’s why you have absolutely no clue. And about that repetition thing. I’m afraid that for you, you actually need it badly! I mean, look at the previous debate about the content of my email. Even after repeating it a dozen times, and REQUOTING it word for word for you, you STILL misread it and stuck to your preconceived, false, and nonsensical reading! And you wonder why I throw you the bilrou7 bil damm!? You personify it!

  11. Ammar,I agree about the transitional restriction, yes.But as for the MB … I believe they have not been honest enough about their real intentions. They still have a big banner on their Syria website about Hama and how they will not forget it. Sounds like trouble, even if they deny it. Ammar, people behave differently when they are empowered, and the MB are no exception … their whole existence is tied to specific religious goals and limitations. They believe that “Islam is a way of life for non muslims” … But, surely the regime should not ignore them because they are real and they are popular. Your suggestions for political reform above are necessary in case the MB are to be a player.

  12. “Your suggestions for political reform above are necessary in case the MB are to be a player.”That’s exactly my point Alex. We can’t ignore the Islamists, no matter how many reasons we have to distrust them. So, the only way to go is to rig the political system against their more unruly tendencies. It’s all about checks and balances. This is what the Founding Fathers of America did. This is the essence of Madison’s Federalist Paper # 10. But, in order for this system to work, we need to find a way to ensure that the Islamists will commit to it. This is why I am indeed in favor of allowing the Alawites, other minority groups and secular Sunnis to play a more significant role in the country’s military and security apparatuses for a certain transitional period. The problem is, the more the Alawites wait, the weaker their negotiating hand will be. That’s what they need to understand, and that’s why they need to break way from the Assads, the Alawite community greatest liability.

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