As protests continue in Syria, DAVID W. LESCH, author of The New Lion of Damascus, carefully outlines the decisions the country’s president Bashar al-Asad will have to make in the coming weeks.
Article by David W. Lesch
Early this year, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad portrayed his country as being different, almost immune from the uprisings that had beset Tunisia and Egypt. The mouthpieces of the Syrian regime consistently echoed this arrogance, even to the point of siding with the protestors in their Arab brethren countries. They pointed out that the septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders of these states were out of touch with their populations. They were also corrupt lackeys of the United States. The implication, of course, was that Asad, a relatively young 45, was in touch with the Arab youth. He also confronted the United States and Israel in the region and supported the resistance forces of Hamas and Hizbullah, thus brandishing credentials that played well in the Arab street.
This may have bought him some time, but it was a misreading of the situation—or denial of it. Having met with Asad a number of times over the past 7 years, I can almost guarantee that he was absolutely shocked when the uprisings in the Arab world started to seep into his own country. I believe he truly thought he was safe and secure…and popular beyond condemnation. But not in today’s new Middle East, where the stream of information cannot be controlled as it has been in the past. The perfect storm of higher commodity prices, Wikileaks, and the youth bulge—and their weapon of mass destruction, the social media—have bared for all to see widespread socio-economic problems, corruption, and restricted political space, and authoritarian regimes can no longer shape or contain this information. In this Syria was no different.
One might recognize the stages of shock in Asad, similar to the five stages of grief. Following his denial, Asad displayed incredulity, even anger that fueled a blatant triumphalism, apparent in his initial speech of March 30 that incorrectly placed the bulk of the blame for the uprisings in Syria on conspirators and foreign enemies, thus ignoring the very real domestic problems that lay at the root of public frustration and despair.
Asad then reached the bargaining stage, where one attempts to do anything possible to postpone one’s fate. There is recognition of problems and attempts to address them, apparent in Asad’s speech to his new cabinet on April 16, when he announced the lifting of the almost 50-year state of emergency law, among other proposed reforms. But the protests and associated violence continued. The most dangerous phase could be if Asad withdraws into seclusion, trying to come to grips with the reality of the situation. This is dangerous because Bashar might cede his leadership role to others, and filling the void could be hardliners who advocate an even harsher crackdown. This may be what is happening now. One hopes that Asad passes through this stage very quickly and reasserts himself toward the final one, that of acceptance.
If I could visit with Bashar al-Asad today I would tell him that he has three choices. First, he could continue to unleash the hounds and brutally repress the uprising. He would stay in power, but then he would become an international pariah and join the ranks of the Saddam Hussein’s and Pol Pot’s of this world, and he would eventually most likely meet the same fate. I know Asad fairly well. He is at base a likable guy, a good family man. Believe me he does not want this legacy. On the other hand, he has been isolated before by the United States and the international community, especially following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005… and survived, even prospered. There is less international leverage against Syria than was the case with Egypt, Tunisia and others. Perhaps he believes he can survive again. It is currently a dangerous phase for both sides. The regime’s crackdown is playing right into the hands of opposition elements. With every death more Syrians will coalesce around the idea that Bashar must go… and nothing short of this will suffice; however, this could be dangerous for the opposition because if the regime thinks its only choices are elimination or survival, it will obviously choose the latter and do what is necessary.
Second, he could try to muddle through as he has, with a mix of reforms and crackdowns. The latest escalation by the regime, sanctioning a more prominent role for the military, does not necessarily indicate an abandonment of this approach. The regime could be engaging in a show of force to deter others from joining the uprising and creating the critical mass necessary to upend the regime, as happened in Egypt. He could also be demonstrating military support for the regime, and any hopes of separating the two, similar to what happened in Egypt, are superfluous. The regime also does not want to look weak, and it could very well be that the government might announce another set of reforms soon… and wanting to do so from a position of strength rather than being seen to be giving into the demands of the protesters. But the opposition is not going away, the demands are getting stiffer, the protestors bolder. This could lead to a long-term cycle of spasmodic protests and associated violence. If this back and forth continues, Bashar will be incrementally de-legitimized, especially if the economic effects of political instability exacerbate an already stressed Syrian economy and undermine critical support for the regime. Sooner or later, one of three things will happen: Bashar, his wife, and his children will be hauled away in chains like Mubarak and his family; they will be murdered either by masses storming the gates or elements close to him who, seeing the writing on the wall, switch sides; or they could escape to join the growing dictator-in-exile club, living a life of anonymity and regret in a strange land.
Third, he could accept the inevitable (and the reality of these other less desirable alternatives) and do what is in the long-term best interests of himself and his country before it is too late (and it may already be): establish a new precedent in the Arab world as well as a positive legacy for himself by announcing real political reform, including new party and election laws, the elimination of article 8 of the Syrian constitution that secures the rule of the Baath party, and, most importantly perhaps, setting presidential terms limits. The days of individuals—or father and son tag teams—ruling 20, 30, or 40 years are over. People want to choose their own leaders and want governments responsive to their demands and changing circumstances, not ossified, corrupt regimes. Bashar needs to address the people directly, not indirectly via a sycophantic parliament and cabinet. He made his mark in Syria because he seemed different. He mingled with everyday Syrians and was not the aloof, secluded tyrant. His wife has been quite visible and civically active. He needs to look into the camera and address his people, admitting the mistakes, redressing them, and mapping out a way forward. If Asad does this, who knows, maybe he could still be president for one of these new presidential terms, riding a new wave of popularity with the silent majority and an organizational lead over others. After that, however, spending more time with your family and being an elder statesman who is respected for doing what was thought to be impossible is not such a bad outcome.
David W. Lesch is Professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. Among his books are: The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria; The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History; The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment; and 1979: The Year That Shaped the Middle East.
The New Lion of Damascus is available now from Yale University Press. You can also read an overview of David Lesch’s book on this blog.