A Decade of Wishful Thinking

Western policymakers and pundits tried for years to convince themselves that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was a reformer. He's not.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.

When Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, many in the West held out hopes that his son, Bashar, who had been tapped to succeed his father as president of Syria, would usher in a series of bold political reforms for his strategically vital country. The Western wish list was long — domestic political and economic liberalization, peace with Israel, an end to the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, ceasing support of Hezbollah and Hamas — and much hope was placed on the shoulders of the lanky, 34-year-old Western-educated ophthalmologist.

Reforms never came. Eleven years later, however, Bashar’s “reformer” label still sticks — on March 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the latest to apply it to him. Faced with a nationwide uprising against his regime in recent weeks, Bashar has once again promised reforms, but his government continues to harshly crack down on any hint of protest; demonstrations in the city of Douma on April 1 were met with deadly force, resulting in 8 casualties. It may be time for all those Western officials who defended Bashar over the years to reconsider just how much of a “reformer” their man in Damascus truly is.


Hillary Clinton and Congress:

“Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” (CBS News: “Face the Nation”, March 27.)

Even when Bashar was persona non grata in Washington during the George W. Bush administration, at least a dozen members of Congress found time to meet with the Syrian president as part of “fact-finding missions” to the Middle East. Most prominent among them was Nancy Pelosi, who arranged a trip to Damascus in April 2007, less than five months after a landslide midterm election made her speaker of the House of Representatives. At the time, Pelosi was the highest-ranking official to meet with Bashar following Bush’s 2003 decision to isolate the Syrian regime. “We come in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is the road to peace,” she said upon arriving there. Pelosi’s trip angered Bush administration officials, who claimed she was undermining U.S. policy in negotiating with a “state sponsor of terror,” but the congresswoman — together with colleagues ranging from Dennis Kucinich to Dick Lugar — insisted that Bashar was ready to play a constructive role in the region.


Sen. John Kerry:

“Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.” (Speech at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 16.)

Kerry has served as the Barack Obama administration’s de facto Syria envoy — meeting personally with Bashar five times over the past two years. But in early March, just before protests erupted in the Syrian city of Deraa, he offered a kind assessment of the regime: “[M]y judgment is that Syria will move,” he said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kerry’s meetings with Bashar were the leading edge of a broader strategic choice made by the Obama administration from the very beginning of its term. Middle East envoy George Mitchell was tasked with pushing for rapprochement between Israel and Syria as a way to clear the path for peace between Israel and Palestine, and Obama confirmed in early 2010 the appointment of an ambassador to Damascus — the first since 2005 — while Congress was in recess. Obama has also approved softening of some sanctions toward the Syrian regime. “President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Kerry said in his speech. “I think it’s incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way.”


Flynt Leverett:

“I think who a man marries says a good deal about him. Now, the woman that Bashar chose to marry, and chose to marry over his mother’s objections, which is not insignificant in his cultural setting, that woman is the daughter of an expatriate Syrian physician, a world-class interventional cardiologist who’s made his career in the United Kingdom. … Now, you may question what it says about her judgment that she gave up Harvard Business School to accept that proposal. But I’m more interested in what that says about Bashar’s judgment, that the person he selects to be beside him on a daily basis is someone who is going to bring exposure to absolute world-class standards and practices in the globalized economy of the 21st century. I find that a very striking statement about him.” (Talk at Brookings Institution, April 25, 2005.)

Flynt Leverett was a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff during the Bush administration, but he left his position because of disagreements about Middle East policy and the conduct of the war on terror more generally. Leverett has since become a Middle East scholar affiliated with the New America Foundation and Pennsylvania State University. Leverett has gained a reputation as an iconoclast when it comes to Middle East policy, both because of his nuanced take on Bashar’s leadership (as captured in his book Inheriting Syria), and his controversial views on the extent of political discontent among the Iranian population. Leverett was a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s insistence on sanctioning Syria, and has been a proponent of the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Bashar.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac:

“I know the importance of Syria in this region and its influence on a number of players,” Sarkozy said in Damascus in December 2008, as Israel was staging a military intervention in Gaza. “I don’t have any doubts that President Bashar al-Assad will throw all his weight to convince everyone to return to reason.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first prominent Western statesman to break with the Bush administration’s policy of isolation, in favor of engaging with Bashar. Sarkozy invited the Syrian president to attend Bastille Day celebrations in Paris in 2008, and also to the founding meeting of the Union of the Mediterranean. But his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, almost unabashedly believed in the Syrian regime, calling the ties between Paris and Damascus as “an indestructible friendship.” Chirac worked from the start to establish close ties with Bashar: Chirac was the only Western head of state to attend his father’s funeral in Damascus in 2000. And Chirac defended Bashar publicly, insisting that the young Syrian president was intent on instituting political reforms in Syria and playing a constructive role in Lebanon. However, Chirac quickly turned on Bashar after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, with whom the French president shared a close friendship. In September 2004, France co-sponsored U.N. Resolution 1559, which demanded the withdrawal of all Syrian troops occupying Lebanon.


Daniel Pipes:

“But I’m hopeful that, within the context of Syrian political life, which has been totalitarian, brutalized, impoverished — that within this context, the fresh face, fresh approach of Bashar Assad could lead to good things.” (Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, June 14, 2000.)

A scholar of the modern Middle East, Pipes is known as a strident and controversial conservative on the subject of Islam. Unsurprisingly, his optimistic assessment of Bashar’s politics, offered shortly after the death of his father, quickly curdled. One year later, Pipes was criticizing Assad for his ineffectual leadership, and two years after that, he was a vocal proponent of the Bush administration’s efforts to sanction the Syrian regime. Late in 2003, Bush appointed Pipes to the board of the United States Institute of Peace.

Miguel Medina/AFP

Tony Blair:

“Whatever the differences of perspective, we both understand the importance of re-starting the Middle East peace process,” Blair said in 2002 of his government’s relationship with Bashar.

Blair had tense relations with Syria throughout his tenure as Britain’s prime minister, but continued to hold out hopes that the Syrian president would play a constructive role in aiding Western efforts in the broader Middle East, especially Iraq. Blair invited Bashar to London shortly after his accession to the Syrian presidency. In October 2001, Blair visited Bashar in Damascus, the first such visit by a British prime minister in 30 years — though one that didn’t adhere to traditional diplomatic protocol, with the Syrian president publicly haranguing the visiting head of government for the deaths of civilians in the pending war in Afghanistan.

In stark contrast to the Bush administration, however, Blair insisted on maintaining personal ties with the Syrian leader. As Iraq descended into sectarian warfare in the wake of the allied invasion in 2003, Blair extracted promises from Bashar — unfulfilled, many analysts say — that Damascus would prevent insurgents from entering the battle via the Syrian border. Blair also held out hope that Bashar would play a decisive role in ending the conflict between Israel and Palestine: In 2006, the United States and Israel both responded coolly to news that Blair had secretly dispatched a diplomatic envoy to meet with Bashar to discuss prospects for a regional peace deal.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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