An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Dictator of Damascus

Did we get Bashar al-Assad wrong?

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Putrid piles of garbage lie on streets because basic services have ceased operating. Running water and electricity are either unavailable — by design, as a form of collective punishment, or as a result of disruption — or else are available only sporadically. Storefronts are shuttered, battered and broken. The stores themselves are empty of both people and products, as either the retailers have deliberately removed the stock, storing it for a safer day, or more likely the goods have been pilfered by vandals on one or either side of the conflict. The walls of buildings are pockmarked by shells and bullets.

Many streets are deserted, littered with debris and marked with the occasional bloodstain. Security checkpoints are ubiquitous; on the highways into and out of cities and along the main arteries, security personnel check identification and search vehicles, while those that have been stopped pray that their names are not on government lists of people to be arrested. As the violence has increased, thugs and criminal elements on both sides have begun to appear, extorting money and bullying innocent civilians.

This is Syria today, where even the elites of Aleppo and Damascus are wary of leaving their safe areas. In the cities that have been hardest hit, people have retreated into sectarian quarters. Homes have been abandoned as families have fled. Tourism has virtually ceased. Credit cards don’t work. Trade and commerce have declined sharply. An unemployment rate that was high prior to the uprising has doubled. The Syrian pound has plummeted in value, from 47 pounds to the dollar before the uprising to as much as 100 pounds to the dollar a year later. Public-sector salaries have been halved to reduce government spending and redirect it toward security. Food and fuel prices are significantly higher. The agricultural sector has been severely disrupted, and basic food items have already become scarce. Schools are closed.

It is an excruciatingly sad picture. Almost every Syrian knows someone who has been killed, arrested, tortured, or bullied during the uprising. I have traveled to Syria more than 20 times since 1989, with some of those visits lasting for months. I have acquired a number of Syrian friends who are now faced off against one another. A couple of the foreign reporters and photographers killed while covering the uprising in Syria were friends of mine. Even those of us who are keen observers of Syria but are far away from the horridness on the ground have been touched by it.

How did it come to this?

I interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad extensively in 2004 and 2005 for an earlier book, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria. Following this, at Assad’s request, I continued to meet with him on a regular basis until 2009. I witnessed him change from someone whom many hoped would reform the inert, authoritarian Syrian system to someone who seemed captured by — and increasingly comfortable with — that very same system. He has been transformed from a potential agent of change to a figure almost universally seen as a brutal dictator with the blood of his people on his hands.

Part of this change in perception is due to the completely different realities that exist in Damascus versus much of the rest of the world. And it is Bashar’s view of the world that has dictated the nature of the Syrian regime’s response to the uprising.

Early in Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, he decreed that military-style uniforms would no longer be worn by students in primary and secondary schools. At the time, Western media, officials, and analysts dismissed and ridiculed the change as virtually worthless. It was emblematic, they said, of how little Assad was actually doing to reform his country. This added to the growing disappointment in what was supposed to be a different type of Syrian ruler.

However, on closer inspection, there was more to this decree than met the eye. Wherever Assad could, he tried to redirect Syria’s operational philosophy away from the symbols and trappings of martial indoctrination to a more normal educational environment that focused on developing useful skill sets. Ironically, this may have contributed to a new generation of youth who thought not of battle against real (or imagined) foes, but of securing a sociopolitical milieu more conducive to a better life. In any event, the "conceptual gap" between the West and Syria as to the utility and effectiveness of this decree was quite wide.

On one occasion, Assad lambasted the criticism he had received in the West on account of the perceived slow pace at which private banks were being set up in Syria, a measure he had announced soon after coming to power. Critics considered this small potatoes when only four private banks actually came into being in 2004. Assad, though, thought it was a transformational moment and a harbinger of things to come.

The "conceptual gap" between Syria and the West has only widened during the revolt. When Assad delivered his first speech to the nation on March 30, 2011, he said that Syria was facing a "huge conspiracy," directed by a highly organized network of the country’s foreign enemies. Most of those outside Syria scoffed: He was blatantly diverting attention from the real socioeconomic and political problems that had brought the Arab Spring to Syria. But many Syrians — maybe even Assad himself — readily believe such claims. Their perception of the nature of threat is vastly different from ours. One might blame this on Syrian paranoia bred by imperialist conspiracies of the past, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, or on regime brainwashing to justify the security state. But it is, in large measure, a function of living in a dangerous neighborhood where real threats are indeed often just around the corner.

It is the conceptual and perceptual gap that lies at the root of the impasse between what the United States and much of the international community demand of the Syrian regime, and what Assad is actually doing. This could be seen in Assad’s now-infamous televised interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in Damascus, broadcast in early December 2011. When asked by Walters, "Do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?" Assad replied: "They are not my forces; they are military forces belong [sic] to the government … I don’t own them. I am president. I don’t own the country, so they are not my forces."

In the West, of course, Assad was ridiculed for that statement and portrayed as completely out of touch. I do not think this is the case at all. I have heard Assad say something similar on numerous occasions. We must bear in mind that although his command of English is impressive, it is by no means perfect; he has difficulty conveying the nuances of what he means in a medium that, in effect, is his third language. What he most likely meant was that he is not all-powerful in Syria — and in this he is correct. He has to constantly manage competing interests and listen to powerful voices on different issues. Although he has a great deal of power — far more than anyone else in Syria — he cannot simply have his way.

Assad has stated again and again over the years that Syria has viable institutions, ones that he had been in the process of reshaping and revitalizing. He never liked to portray himself as acting outside the framework of these institutions, even though he did so quite frequently. Indeed, on one occasion he admitted his frustration that he had signed a thousand decrees, but only a few had been implemented, which had forced him to go outside the purview of government ministries to get things done. For whatever reason, it is important to him that it does not seem as if every aspect of Syria is under his watchful eye. I do not think this is to avoid responsibility. It is more a question of him trying to depict his country as a modern, working state that functions like others.

I am also sure that, during the uprising, Assad would have pointed out that he has made extensive concessions and enacted dramatic reforms. He would have again complained that he is not receiving any recognition or credit for this, and conclude, as he has done in the past, that the United States and the West have it in for him — no matter what he does, it will not be enough. And I think he sincerely believes this.

Assad is the product of an authoritarian system — one that is a paradigm of stagnation and control. It is not geared to respond to people’s demands; it controls people’s demands. Nor is it geared to implementing dramatic reform. It is constructed to maintain the status quo and survive. At any other time, the reforms thus far announced — lifting the emergency law, providing for Kurdish citizenship, creating political parties, writing a new constitution — would be hailed as significant, albeit not enough. Now, however, they are seen as self-serving, after-the-fact, and inadequate. As Bashar himself told the Wall Street Journal in January 2011, before the Syrian uprising gained momentum, concessions after the outbreak of unrest are always insufficient — at that point, "it is too late to do any reform."

I got to know Assad fairly well over the years. I do not see him as either an eccentric or as a bloodthirsty killer, along the lines of Muammar al-Qaddafi or Saddam Hussein. People I know who have met all three readily agree with this assessment. There are those, however, who differ, viewing Bashar as a corrupt tyrant from the very beginning. Many of these people have never even been to Syria. Many of them have agendas that have been — or still are — assisted by this characterization. And almost none of them have ever met Assad or any other top Syrian official. They often base their position on the evidence of continued repression and repeatedly delayed reform. This is understandable. If they said that the Syrian system had been corrupt and repressive from the beginning of Assad’s rule, then I would wholeheartedly agree.

If they said that he was bound eventually to succumb to this system, even if he was altruistic in the beginning, then they would be correct. But Bashar was different from the typical Middle Eastern dictator, and this led many people, including me, to hope for the best — and maybe even indulge in a little wishful thinking. That Bashar was perceived by most who met him as a relatively ordinary person, and that this ordinary person then sanctioned a brutal crackdown on the uprising in what seems to have been a very matter-of-fact manner says something about human behavior and about how even normal people can become corrupted under the pressure of power and delusion.

Somewhere along the road, Assad lost his way. He either convinced himself, or was convinced by sycophants, that his well-being was synonymous with the well-being of the country, and that his brutal response to the protests was a necessary response. A self-reinforcing alternate reality was orchestrated and constructed around him, and there was no way of testing it against what was real.

A friend of mine, Ayman Abd al-Nour, is a prominent voice on things Syrian. He went to college with Bashar in Syria and got to know him well as a friend. Ayman was forced into exile several years ago because of his criticisms of the regime that appeared on his blog, All4Syria. "After he became president, when people showered him with compliments and inflated his ego, he became totally different — as if he was chosen by God to run Syria," he told me. "He believed he was a prophet and started to build his own world."

While the rest of the world thinks Assad has been delusional since his March 30 speech, it is my contention that he and his inner circle really believe — more than most people can imagine — that they have indeed been battling foreign conspiracies from the very beginning. The Syrian leadership simply has a different conceptual paradigm that frames the nature of internal and external threat to the country. From the Western point of view, it appears extremely paranoid; from the perspective of Damascus, it is based on historical circumstances. And the violence Assad has unleashed has helped to create a context in Syria whereby external forces are, in fact, involving themselves in the uprising — it has, to some extent, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Syrian government’s crackdown is a push-button, convulsive reaction to domestic threat. It is not that Bashar does not control the security forces — this is simply the way Syria has worked under the Assads. Syrian leaders reached into their pockets and pulled out what worked for them in the past, in this case what they found was much closer to Hama in 1982 than to anything else. The regimes of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have always refused to make concessions from a perceived position of weakness — they will only do so from a perceived position of strength. Cracking down hard on demonstrators while offering political reforms are two sides of the same coin.

Thus, there was never much U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration could do to change Bashar’s response to the revolt. The United States tried to squeeze blood from a stone: It pushed for dramatic political reform from a system that simply is not built for it.

Assad’s removal perhaps will just be a matter of time — although it may take longer than many want. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be a pretty sight. As Anne Applebaum once wrote in an article on revolution and the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for there to be 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. Many in the opposition realized that the system could only be changed through revolution. There was no other option.

Despite support from countries such as Russia and Iran, Assad and his loyalists believe they are essentially on their own and must do things their own way. I believe they truly think they will work their way through this. The Syrian leadership views events over the long term. They trust that, if they can hang on by creating a favorable stalemate, they will outlast the protesters and outlast world attention.

Eventually, in a decade or so, they think they will be able to work the country back into the good graces of the international community. The vagaries of the Middle East mean that there are usually such opportunities for rehabilitation — and the Syrian leadership has been through it all once before and survived, following the intense international pressure after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Assad probably thinks the opposition inside and outside the country is a basket case (and he would not altogether be wrong about this), and thus its ability to take the fight to the regime over the long term is minimal.

Most of us watching from the outside, along with those making policy decisions in Washington, the United Nations, or in European capitals, come from a decidedly different world than that of the Syrian leadership. To think that we could all get on the same page and collectively find a peaceful way out of the mess was, in retrospect, more fantasy than reality.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell distinguished professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author or editor of 14 books, including Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad and Syria and the United States: Eisenhower's Cold War in the Middle East.

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