Monday, May 2, 2011

The Trouble with Syria

No country quite like Syria embodies the complexities and contradictions that run through the Arab world the way threads bind a garment of screaming patchworks. But forget for a minute that this is a republic with a crown on its head. Forget that this bastion of resistance never could see the irony in championing Palestinian rights while withholding those of its own people. Forget even that this is a Syria that prides itself on being the beating heart of an Arabhood that never quite came to life and that pines for Lebanon much like an amputee yearns for a severed leg.

As interesting as all this is, it’s not what makes Syria so special. Love it or hate it, Syria matters because for the past 40 years, ever since Hafez Assad seized power, the country has turned from patsy to regional player. War by other means, sabotage as a preamble to diplomacy, or dreaded afterwards should it fail, playing footsy with the forces that inhabit our underworld while shaking hands with the beau monde above: this has been the stuff of Syria’s success in a very tough neighborhood, where the tightest of alliances are drawn in quicksand and the enemy is just as often friend as adversary. It has helped, of course, that Syria itself is the jewel of the Levant, home to the most thorny problem in the area: the Arab-Israeli dilemma. What the geography lacks in resources and wealth, it more than compensates for in trouble.

But Hafez Assad would not have been able to play the outside so confidently, had he not controlled everything and everyone on the inside so well. How else could he have bequeathed it all to his son Bashar, and without so much as a feather daring to ruffle?

Rumor has had it that Bashar is not Hafez. True. The glaring mistakes early in his tenure are proof enough. And yet, for all of his shortcomings, by the time Bashar reached his tenth year in office, Syria had become at once a strategic portal for Turkey, Iran and Israel. In Lebanon, it has proved practically impossible to sidestep or dislodge, even in the worst days of 2005, when its army was ushered out. In Iraq, it has refined the role of spoiler-cum-fixer into a high art. In Palestine, it has given Hamas backbone, denying Mubarak control over that crucial card. With Israel, it has maintained the quietest border on the front and conveniently consolidated all the push buttons of the resistance in Damascus. For Hezbollah and Iran, it has acted like a gaping hole in an Arab Sunni wall. 

No, not Jekyll and Hyde, more like Batman this side up, the Joker that side down.

Barely a month ago, President Assad was so sure of his exceptionalism, he boldly declared, “If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.”

He didn’t know it then, but he was actually the first to call it right before Syria actually flared up.

Like all the other masters of this Arab house, Assad thought he knew his people better than anyone else. He turned out to be dangerously misguided. But surely the Syrians must know one or two things about him and the Family. They are no pushovers. They won’t fade into the sunset or retire to Qardaha, from whence they hark. More to the point, they are convinced that, for them and their sect, after defeat comes certain death. Hafez Assad once famously quipped, “Min al qassr ila al qabr,” from the palace to the grave. That’s because, for the Alawites, life only recently has been pretty much exactly the reverse: from the grave to the palace. Call this sect’s centuries-long destitution what you like, but its tormented history is key to understanding its psyche, however different Syria’s present circumstance is.

By way of a peek into a distressingly murky future, most commentators are guessing regime collapse and/or civil strife. But the Assads have more than enough firepower and grit to last for a long time, and in order for civil war to become full-fledged, the opposition will have to be very well armed and financed. So far, and all conspiracy talk aside, neither Saudi Arabia, nor Israel and the US, the oft-cited culprits, are keen on wreaking this kind of havoc or on seeing the back of Assad. Not because they love him so much, but because they cannot imagine Syria and the Levant without him—literally. There’s just too much mayhem in the pipeline, too big of a forest fire to put out (to paraphrase from Nessim Taleb and Mark Blyth’s Black Swan of Cairo) and too many frightening regional eventualities should Syria totally breakdown.

However, this threesome is certainly eager to downsize the country, but getting Assad to compromise over the hot files doesn’t appear achievable now; he’s in combat mode and once more a pariah.  So, if there is malicious intent of a sort, it is to sap him, bog him down, deny him that which gave his family’s reign so much strength for the larger part of the past four decades--a very tight grip on Syria itself. Neither killing the regime nor civil war will do the job. But a tired, wobbly and constantly worried Bashar: now that’s something they can live with until he’s finally ready to bargain away his trophies. 

As for the Assads, the primary objective is, of course, to stay at the helm. From there, analysts have to walk backwards and see how much they and their faction are willing to give up in order for them to retain the levers of power. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is plenty of incentive for them to negotiate their way out of this impasse. Time, though, is running out, and so are their options. The more they wait, the more creative they will have to be with a people fast running out of fear or good will.

Before you waste your time searching the past for clues, precedents, in this case, don’t count for much. This is the first time in 40 years that Syria faces this kind of popular discontent.  Back in 1982, it was a very aggressive generation of Muslim Brothers that stirred the pot. They could be cornered, isolated and then snuffed out. This time around, it is the people who first rose up in arms. This time around, the leadership knows there really are no foreign conspiracies, just internal heartbreak. The remedies for it may be very costly, but they are as obvious as they are unavoidable.