The Middle East Channel

The conceptual gap between Syria and the U.S.

Early in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency he decreed the elimination of military uniforms in primary and secondary schools. At the time, Western media and analysts dismissed, even ridiculed, the change as virtually worthless and emblematic of how little Assad was actually reforming the country. This added to the growing disappointment in what was supposed ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Early in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s presidency he decreed the elimination of military uniforms in primary and secondary schools. At the time, Western media and analysts dismissed, even ridiculed, the change as virtually worthless and emblematic of how little Assad was actually reforming the country. This added to the growing disappointment in what was supposed to be a different type of Syrian ruler. However, when examined more closely, there was more to the decree than meets the eye. Where Assad could — in a system almost immune to change and at a time when his authority was less than what it would soon become — he tried to re-direct Syria’s operational philosophy away from the symbols and trappings of martial indoctrination to a more normal educational environment that focused on developing practical skill sets. Ironically, this may have contributed to a new generation of youth thinking not of a battle against real and imagined foes but of securing a socio-political milieu more conducive to a better life. In any event, the conceptual gap on the utility and effectiveness of this decree between the U.S. and Syria was indeed wide.

On one occasion when I met with Assad, he bemoaned the criticism he received in the West for the perceived slow pace of creating private banks in Syria, something he had announced two years earlier. It was considered small potatoes when four private banks actually came into being in 2004. Assad, though, thought it was a transformational moment and harbinger of things to come in terms of economic liberalization.

On another visit with Assad, this one soon after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005 — in the context of the international pressure on Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, he expressed anger that the West, especially the U.S., did not appreciate the "enormous" concession he made by agreeing to withdraw. The implication, of course, was that he could have made a lot more trouble had he wanted to or even kept the Syrian forces ensconced in Lebanon. He felt he received no credit for his supposed magnanimity.

These are but a few examples of the conceptual gap between Syria and the U.S. On March 30, during his first speech to the nation in reaction to the growing protests in Syria, Assad branded terrorists, conspirators, and armed gangs as the primary reasons for the unrest (unfortunately, he seems to still believe this). Most of those outside of Syria scoffed at such blatant misdirection, distracting from the real socio-economic and political problems that brought the Arab Spring to Syria. But many Syrians, maybe even Assad himself, readily believe such exhortations. Their perception of the nature of the threat is vastly different from what we see outside of Syria. Blame it on Syrian paranoia bred by imperialist conspiracies of the past, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and/or regime brainwashing to consecrate the necessity for the security state, but it is in large measure a function of living in a dangerous neighborhood where real threats are often around the corner. Though present in most revolutionary movements and clearly a minority, there are just enough armed gangs and external interference by anti-Assad groups to lend a shred of credibility to such claims in the eyes of those in Syria who are sitting on the fence.

We must also remember that Hama has two very different meanings. To the outside world and even some Syrians, especially those in Hama itself, it was the massacre of 1982 when government forces brutally killed some ten to twenty thousand people. To the regime, it was the extension of government authority and the extinguishing of a serious salafist threat that had waged a campaign of terror in country that almost led to civil war in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  In other words, it was success. These are two different historical narratives informing two different sides of the same story today.

It is the conceptual and perceptual gap that is at the root of the impasse between what the U.S, and much of the international community demand of the Syrian regime and what Assad is actually doing (or feels he should do) to end the violence against protestors and enact far-ranging reform.

I am sure that if I met with Assad today he would point out that he has made extensive concessions and enacted dramatic reforms. He would again complain that he is not receiving any recognition or credit for this, and as such, he would conclude, as he has done in the past, that the U.S. and the West have it out for him, that no matter what he does it will not be enough. And, I think, he would sincerely believe this.

Assad is the product of an authoritarian system, one that is a paradigm of stagnation and control. The Syrian system is not geared to respond to people’s demands — it controls people’s demands. It is not geared to implement dramatic reform — it is constructed to maintain the status quo and survive at any cost. At any other time the reforms thus far announced — lifting the emergency law, providing for Kurdish citizenship, creating political parties, etc. — would indeed have been significant. Now, however, they are seen as self-serving, after-the-fact, and insufficient. In any event, to reform more deeply and rapidly is anathema to the Syrian system simply because it would spell the end of the regime itself. They are counterintuitive to the basic instincts of an authoritarian, neo-patriarchal system. Many of us hoped Assad would change the system. What seems to have happened, which is not unusual in authoritarianism, is that the system changed him.

What this means is that the ability of the Syrian regime to meet the demands of the protestors and the international community in the requisite time frame is slim or none. If the protests miraculously stopped today, maybe the reforms announced to date would develop into something meaningful. Then again, without the internal and external pressure, the regime might dilute the reforms to insignificance or revoke them altogether. After all, Assad has not inspired confidence in terms of his ability — or even his willingness — to actually implement reform beyond their mere announcement. Some of this is him, some the inert Syrian system.

Thus, there is not much the Obama administration can do. The U.S. has been trying to squeeze blood from a turnip by pushing for dramatic political reform from a system that simply isn’t built for it mechanically or intellectually. And the U.S. has to be careful about intervening more energetically to help the Syrian opposition for fear of discrediting them by attaching a made-in-USA label to it in addition to providing the regime the narrative of threat it has been propagandizing to legitimate the use of force.

In the end, then, there must be a Syrian solution to a Syrian problem. Washington has very little direct leverage on Syria in the short term. The U.S. and EU — and now some Arab states — have ratcheted up the pressure incrementally to support the protestors’ demands in a way that will hopefully not be counter-productive. It is a difficult balancing act.

The regime seems to have the willpower, incentive, and means to stick around for a while. Unless Assad somehow starts to think outside of his box and head a transitional period of reform, the regime’s legitimacy has been so tarnished that it will eventually alienate those remaining bases of support that have kept him in power. Of course, this is unlikely.

Assad’s removal will just be a matter of time, longer than many want, but probably more consistent with what will develop in Syria. As Anne Applebaum wrote in her recent article on revolution and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Foreign Policy, for an orderly transition from dictatorship to democracy two elements are crucial: "an elite willing to hand over power, and an alternative elite organized enough to accept it." In Syria neither exists. Will it at some point? Probably not, but it is not out of the realm of possibility, as there are stirrings that something might emerge on both sides of the equation.

Most of us watching from the outside — those making policy decisions in Washington, at the U.N. or in European capitals — are from a decidedly different world and conceptual paradigm than the Syrian leadership. To think that we could all get on the same page and collectively find a peaceful way out of this has been more fantasy than reality. The weltanschauung prisms are anchored in vastly different experiences, pre-conceptions, local politics, and ideologies, and they have a very hard time seeing and understanding each other.

David W. Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. His most recent book is The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics and Ideology (2011).

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