The Middle East Channel

The Arab awakening and Syrian exceptionalism

The Arab awakening and Syrian exceptionalism

Cleavage in political culture between the domestic and external could not have been better illustrated than in President Bashar Assad’s March 30 televised address to the Syrian people. Its style perturbed, and then called down almost universal disdain, externally — for being both insufficient and ill-judged. In Syria, where I was, the address played rather differently, at least for many. Understanding just why reactions were so divergent points to a different logic behind the address to the one imputed from outside. In its way, the event symbolizes how Assad’s situation is indeed so very different to that of a Mubarak or a Ben Ali — which had become the unique lens through which his response was being judged — particularly in the West.

Of course in Western culture, a profound crisis demands due seriousness: A graven-faced president would sit behind an imposing desk, with the symbolic tokens of authority, and with an array of flags artfully painting the gravitas of the moment. But here was President Assad jocularly and informally addressing parliament, occasionally chuckling at his own jokes — and even engaging in lighthearted banter with some quite rowdy members of his audience. How "unpresidential," a Western politician might murmur to himself at such a key moment, and "so lacking in specifics on reform."

But this was its point: Assad’s style was intentionally informal. It spoke to a different image than a stereotype: it was of a young leader, one who was not ossified by time and convention. It was a broad hint to a domestic audience, accustomed to nuance, that the President really does believe in reform. This conviction about Assad — that he is not old guard — is widely held in Syria, even by many of those who have been demonstrating in the streets. Most Syrians do believe that the President did not order the security forces to use live fire, but forbade it. This is the difference between Syria and, say, Egypt. There, everyone knew Mubarak would never, ever reform. Most Syrians however believe that Assad instinctively is reformist.

Assad’s address was, to an extent, an audacious one — carefully tilted toward the particular Syrian context, rather than to the general context of (other) Arab states and the regional revolutionary fervor. In his interview in January with the Wall Street Journal, the president was very clear about the absolute necessity for internal reform and for respecting the peoples’ dignity:

It is about doing something … to change the society, and we have to keep up with this change, as a state and as institutions … it is about … the people’s feeling and dignity, about the people participating in the decisions of their country. It is about another important issue … [about being] very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance. So people do not only live on interests [alone]; they also live on beliefs…

Very plainly, Assad was committing himself to reform. In his recent address, he repeated it: "Without reform we are on the path of destruction," but then he chose deliberately not to offer a list of concessions to those who had so far demonstrated. This omission was the most carefully deliberated and calculated aspect of his speech. Recall that the Syrian state was not in peril. No senior figure has defected from it, and the army remains loyal. The protest movement in Daraa so far has failed to take root in the cities. The number of anti-demonstrators that turned out in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama, three of Syria’s four largest cities, numbered in the hundreds and not the thousands, while the pro-demonstrations in those cities were massive.

Even in Daraa, the site of the biggest demonstrations and the site of the gratuitous use of live fire against the protesters, inhabitants believe they know the identity of the official who ordered the firing and also the prominent personage to whom he is linked. They are deeply angry to be sure, but their anger is not primarily channeled at the president.

Externally, the context of Syria had been simplified to a black-and-white "would the president do reform or dig in?" In reality, this was not the issue in Syria — even if it was, and is, the issue in most of the Arab world. There was no struggle about whether to reform: The debate was about how to proceed. The real debate was about how best to implement reform in a way that could not be used by a minority in order to discredit, and ultimately to devalue, and block all reform.

Assad already had implicitly acknowledged internal dissatisfaction with the (heavy-handed, frequently inept, and often corrupt) administration of the state. He also had recognized that the new Arab consciousness required real popular participation in decision-making. But, at the same time he noted, in the external sphere, Syria has stood on the right side of history — a key point that sets Syria apart from most other Arab states: Assad had opposed the war in Iraq and has supported the resistance in Palestine. To the Wall Street Journal, Assad emphasized that, in external affairs, he had been closely aligned to the core beliefs and ideology of the people — in marked contrast to other Arab rulers, such as Mubarak, who was viewed as a Western and Israeli stooge. The key was to repeat this principle in the domestic sphere, Assad indicated.

This foreign-policy stance has given Assad personal popularity in the region, and at home. But it has also brought Syria enemies: It is evident that some in the region, and beyond, would relish any discomfort caused to him, hoping to see his foreign policy weakened. Just as some see that Mubarak’s demise weakened Fatah, so too do some hope that upheaval in Syria might weaken Hamas and Hezbollah. Israeli commentators too have been suggesting over recent weeks that the Arab awakening might have a silver lining: a more democratic Syria might lead to a more accommodating Assad — to the point, perhaps, that he could be induced to forego his membership of the resistance axis, and to make peace with Israel. Israel is not alone in this wish: Other Arab leaders quietly hope for the same, but their hope lies less in securing a peace with Israel, but in securing the weakening of the Islamist trend that they perceive as threatening their survival.

The threat of foreign and intelligence service intervention in Syria is not some whimsy: It has been a steady drumbeat over the years, and it is clear that the government has documents and intelligence relating to planning emanating from elements in Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to ratchet up any internal Syrian disquiet into a polarizing confrontation. Of particular concern has been Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s characterization of Syria’s primary dissension as being one of sectarianism: as a conflict between Sunnis exploited by Alawites (Assad is Alawite). In Latakia there has been evidence of just such attempts to provoke such sectarian fears.

What then do the massive pro-Assad demonstrations seem to say? I suspect that many of those marching have seen too clearly what sectarian strife has done to Iraq — (there are over a million Iraqi refugees in Syria); and many may also have been unnerved by the sudden Western intervention in Libya and the threat there of civil war. They have seen that before as well. They, too, want reform: They share a conviction that Assad also wants it and were demonstrating largely against those elements who seek precisely such a descent into civil strife that will signal an end to that hope. Many Syrians may suspect that the externally promoted concept of reform may be a Trojan horse being used against Syria and the resistance axis more widely.

Assad’s address therefore was to this latter group — a group that did not exist as a majority elsewhere in the region. The pro-Assad demonstrators sought a signal of self-confidence and will, but will also now be looking to see that promised reforms do indeed materialize. Assad seems to intend that reform — the ending of the emergency laws, the lifting of restrictions on the press, and a new law to provide for a plurality of political parties — progresses rapidly. Success in this project depends crucially, of course, on the president’s ability to stem and to stop the killing of protesters, too.

If Assad succeeds — and it seems, thus far, to be heading in that direction — the calculation by some external analysts that Assad will emerge somehow weakened by greater popular participation seems improbable: Much of his personal popularity rests precisely on his foreign-policy stance, in which he has been closely aligned with popular sentiment. More probable is that Assad will emerge with his stature enhanced, and Syria will be set on a course for resuming its traditional place at the center of Arab politics. Correctly understood, a strengthened Syria offers a better prospect for resolving present regional tensions, rather than aggravating them.

Alastair Crooke is the director and founder of Conflicts Forum.