Christian Caryl

Is Bashar al-Assad Syria’s Abraham Lincoln?

The Syrian president's fans are comparing him with the hero of America's Civil War. Here's why they're wrong.

Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

You wouldn’t think, judging by the horrific news coming out of Syria, that President Bashar al-Assad would have many defenders. But there are some. Many are Syrians who are close to his regime. Others are foreign well-wishers who have their own reasons for lending him their support. And some are even comparing the embattled Syrian president to Abraham Lincoln. Seriously.

One of the most interesting arguments that I’ve heard so far comes from the the president of the Institute for the Middle East in Moscow, a man with the evocative name of Yevgeny Satanovsky. In his article, Satanovsky assails the West for its alleged hypocrisy in condemning Assad:

Abraham Lincoln was lucky to have lived when he did. Surely he would have appeared a vicious tyrant had Twitter, Facebook, Al Jazeera, NATO and the UN existed when he encouraged the efforts of Union forces to suppress Confederate separatists. But Lincoln is an American national hero, a bastion of democracy and a martyr. It is quite possible that in the future these very same words will be used, at least in the Arab world, to describe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is now widely reviled by the international community. History is full of surprises.

In other words, according to Satanovsky, Assad is getting a bum rap. When Abraham Lincoln launched his effort to prevent the southern states of the Confederacy from seceding from the Union, he was just doing what the Syrian president is doing today: preventing rebels from tearing his country apart.

Satanovsky isn’t the only one to have drawn this comparison. The notion of Assad as a misunderstood patriot, fighting to preserve his nation’s territorial integrity — just as Lincoln did in his day — can be encountered in all sorts of places around the Internet. "This war is just like the American civil war and Assad is just like Abraham Lincoln," writes one commenter in response to an article on Syria published on the website of the Arabic-language broadcaster Al-Arabiya. "The Shabiha [the pro-Assad militia] could be compared to Sherman’s march to the Atlantic."

In some ways the analogy is a bit ironic, since Assad himself persists in denying that anything like a civil war is taking place in his country. Officially he insists that the whole crisis is the result of intervention by various foreign powers that have stirred up "terrorists" against the Syrian people. (I doubt that he believes this in private, though I can’t really say.)

Still, it’s interesting that people feel inclined to make the comparison. Is there anything to it? Ask most Americans, and they’ll instinctively reject it — though usually without being able to explain why. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet.

I’ll start by playing devil’s advocate. First, there’s certainly no question that Lincoln served as commander-of-chief during the most brutal conflict in U.S. history. To use Satanovsky’s term, the American Civil War was indeed "vicious" (as civil wars so often are): At least 620,000 fighting men died on both sides — at a time when the U.S. population was 31 million. (For what it’s worth, so far 36,000 Syrians have died in the conflict there, in a country with 20 million people.) While most of the fighting between the Union and the Confederacy took place between regular military forces, Lincoln’s Civil War also set a grim 20th-century precedent by explicitly drawing civilian populations into the hostilities. We don’t know how many civilian casualties were caused by the war, since no one kept track, but the numbers probably weren’t trivial.

Some Union tactics, indeed, were designed to inflict harm on civilians. General Philip Sheridan pursued a scorched earth policy in his efforts to pacify the Shenandoah Valley. General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote a letter to a fellow general in which he explained the plans for his famous "March to the Sea" in 1864, in which he set out to destroy the South’s military infrastructure by laying waste to the civilian economy:

We are not only fighting armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies.

Sherman also gave his commanders carte blanche when it came to retaliating against "guerillas or bushwhackers," as well any "inhabitants" who dared to impede the invading Yankees or "otherwise manifest local hostility" (a description that leaves a lot to the imagination). Under such circumstances, he instructed his army commanders to "order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility." However you slice it, this doesn’t exactly sound like population-centric counterinsurgency — more like a recipe for cracking heads.

Assad’s defenders would presumably assert that the Syrian president hasn’t done anything worse. Assad himself claims that his government is not really fighting his own people. The enemy, he says, is a bunch of terrorists sponsored by foreign powers.

And what about Satanovsky’s charge that Lincoln would have been typecast as a "vicious tyrant" if he lived today? Many people at the time, in fact, made just such accusations about the 16th president of the United States. He was commonly assailed as a "dictator" for his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, his declaration of martial law, and his expansive use of executive powers. For many southerners, of course, his opposition to secession was enough in itself.

The excellent new Steven Spielberg movie, Lincoln, which has just been released here in the United States, brings this point out nicely. In the film, critics derisively refer to Lincoln as "King Abrahamus Lincolnus." At one point, a member of his own cabinet chides him for acting like an autocrat. (For what it’s worth, such criticisms of Lincoln can be heard from many Americans even today — especially among libertarians, miscellaneous small-government conservatives, and neo-confederate nostalgics.)

So maybe Satanovsky’s right? Perhaps Assad and Lincoln have much more in common than we’re willing to admit?

No. I actually don’t think so. But why, exactly?

Because there’s one big difference between the two leaders — a big difference with many important implications. One of them is a true dictator, an absolute ruler in a country that hasn’t known a free election or freedom of speech in decades. The other was elected in a free and fair election by a majority of his compatriots. And that’s pretty much all the difference that you need.

As renowned Civil War historian James McPherson pointed out to me, Lincoln’s opposition to the secession of the southern states — who didn’t even wait for him to assume office before they left the Union — derived directly from the notion of popular sovereignty. Lincoln was at most eloquent about this in his magnificent First Inaugural Address:

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.

At the same time, Lincoln pointed out that the Constitution had made no provision for "separation of the States," while it explicitly obligated him to "preserve, protect, and defend" the constitutional order. In other words, the democratic system had laid out ground rules for the peaceable regulation of political conflicts. It did not provide for secession, the triumph of "bullets over ballots," as Lincoln referred to it elsewhere. "Lincoln wins the election, and the losers don’t like it, so they leave," McPherson said. "That would have completely discredited the idea of democracy."

This, of course, was the background of Lincoln’s famous vow in the Gettysburg Address that "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." (If you think this is all a moot historical point, guess again: In the past few days 97,000 people unhappy with the outcome of the U.S. presidential election have signed an online petition urging secession of Texas from the Union.)

To be sure, Lincoln did assume far-ranging executive powers — but he did so on a clearly defined constitutional basis that he undertook to explain before the legislature. "He went to Congress to explain his actions in order to avoid setting a precedent that could be exploited later," says Matthew Sitman, a PhD candidate in political theory at Georgetown University. "I think one of the most remarkable things about Lincoln’s leadership is how narrowly he circumscribed those powers — how he viewed them as temporary, justified by only the most dire necessity."

This was, one might argue, Lincoln’s greatest strength. He could afford to act with comparative discrimination because he knew that he enjoyed a genuine democratic mandate from his own side. With a few important exceptions, Lincoln’s administration allowed opposition politicians and newspapers to go right on assailing him and his policies throughout the war. And for all the harshness of the conflict, neither side dreamed of turning artillery directly on civilians.

The contrast, in short, does not flatter Assad. The Syrian president has shown no inclination to allow his personal rule to be checked in any way, shape, or form. He inherited his office from his father, Hafez, who seized power in 1970; the Assad dynasty is now the longest-running autocracy in the Arab world. The main instrument of their rule throughout has been the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, a party that has exercised near-totalitarian rule based on an ideology that traces its roots to 1930s fascism.

The power base of the party is the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs, a sect that encompasses only some 15 percent of the Syrian population. It is, presumably, precisely because Assad is all too aware of the extremely narrow basis of his own legitimacy that he has been so quick to crack down violently on even the mildest forms of dissent — such as the peaceful protests that kicked off the current Syrian rebellion. As a result, the rebels are fighting to end a regime that has all too often treated them like subjects rather than citizens.

This, of course, is why the overwhelming majority of the casualties in the Syrian conflict are civilians. Indeed, the way Assad’s forces have been behaving suggests strongly that they are just as interested in terrorizing the people into submission as they are in beating the rebels militarily. Meanwhile, Assad refuses to recognize that anything like an opposition exists. Anyone who’s against his government is, to quote his speech before the Syrian parliament earlier this year, "a criminal, a mercenary, or [the accessories of] a plan led by frenzied colonizers and financed by sick rulers."

At the beginning of the American Civil War as well as at its end, Lincoln refused to condemn the people of the South for disagreeing with him. Unlike Assad, Lincoln didn’t regard his political opponents as his personal enemies; it wasn’t his personal rule he was defending, but rather the idea of a government supported by its people. He regarded southerners, after all, as fellow citizens of the United States. After the end of the war Lincoln intervened to prevent a harsh military occupation of the southern states — a reflection of his words in the First Inaugural: "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." I doubt very much that Syrians will ever have the chance to hear similar eloquence from Assad. His words betray his motives.

 Twitter: @ccaryl