Monday, June 9, 2014

Bashar Assad's Presidential Elections

The Shenanigan in the Shenanigan

Looking for an angle in the recent Syrian presidential elections? You could marvel at Hassan Nassrallah’s pleadings (always in the style of I know everything and you’re an idiot) to fully appreciate, grasp, buy, and then eat up the full significance of a shenanigan.  

If that doesn’t work and you’re still desperate for some insight that you are sure is hidden deep inside this silly story, then to you père Assad.

Pick a day between 20 and 25, February 1985. A late afternoon chat in Amman. I was sitting mute (ok, and just a tad bit giddy) between a seasoned Lebanese journalist, who worked then for a French outlet, and a wily Jordanian politician. Across the border, Hafez Assad had just been reelected President of Syria with 99.4% of the vote in a referendum for which an impeccable 100% of voters turned out. Of course, it escaped no one that this routine constitutional exercise came on the blood soaked heels of the Hama Cleansing and years of civil rumblings encouraged by internal failures and external nemeses.

The journalist, obviously oscillating between amusement and bemusement, asked, “It’s bizarre this charade, no? How does Assad expect us to take these ridiculous results seriously?” To which the good politician answered with a wry smile, “ Ah, but that is precisely Assad’s point: that he could pull off something this ridiculous--and with such ease so soon after all the bloodshed.”

To one and all, the man was saying: I am in control.

I am paraphrasing, it goes without saying. And so is Bashar now. It has been 29 years since that plebiscite. In the throes of an existential challenge that has broken the son’s grip and the country’s back, presidential elections proceeded, as commentators, oscillating between amusement and bemusement, cried foul.

For Bashar this is nothing short of applause. He has just demonstrated that, even under extreme duress, he can pull off an absolute farce; to boot, that he can pull it off in an old, favorite fiefdom, rousing tens of thousands of “expats” to throng the Syrian embassy in Lebanon to do their duty for Bashar w bass—Only Bashar.  

But the mob scene in Beirut still needed a prop to deliver the full force of the stunt. In an arrangement that is signature House of Assad, the embassy lined up three boxes, one for each candidate in curtain free space, as if Bashar was giggling to one and all: I am still in control.

But the undeniable fact is that he isn’t. If Hafez’s referendum in 1985 was designed to show off his strength in a Syria united behind him, Bashar’s elections were meant to camouflage weakness in a Syria divided all around him.  

You’re about to say he’s done well—considering. And you would be right—kind of. Syria is gone, the man is but a fraction of his original size, but there is a growing sense that his will be a voice in any future settlement. Increasingly, you come across even the most anti-Assad die-hards who have quit because of the horrors of the chaos, because of the unbearable sight of a nation dying, the forbidding promise of Islamist extremism. And perhaps because they finally caught up with the long established consensus between enough of Assad’s friends and foes that the regime shall remain intact.

Alas, for all these “blessings,” Bashar owes a huge debt to a long list of others. Sitting alone in his office, he could blow kisses every which way the wind will take them. But no favor has been more consequential for him and Syria than that extended by Hezbollah and Iran, not only because it is the very one that saved his neck, but because it is the very one with the most intriguing implications for the geopolitics of the region.

How these implications will play out is, of course, an important question for which a number of intertwining, booby trapped files lie in wait, only one of which is titled The Arab Uprisings and the Dust They’ve Kicked Up From Sanaa’ to Benghazi. Others you should keep in mind? Let’s see, first the big regional folders: America Does Iran; Is This A Shiite Crescent I Behold Or An Ignis Fatuus?; (click on the link if this is the first time you come across this beauty); Regional Models Are For The Birds, with the very helpful subheading of Let’s Not Talk Turkey & Only The Southern Suburbs Want to Speak Farsi.   

As for the local dossiers, they all, regrettably if inevitably, end in a question mark: Please, Might Turkey Dump Erdogan? Who Will Keel Over First, Second And Third In The Saudi Kingdom? Will Iran’s Theocracy Die In Order To Live? Is Netanyahu The Gift That Keeps On Giving Or What?

Bashar, being Bashar, would have a mother of a file all his own, but I am not altogether sure it is of any comfort for this former leader of the former “pulse of Arabhood”: The Trials and Travails of A Master Turned Pawn.

While working your way through any of these recipes, here’s a piece of advice recently given to me by one of the sharpest cooks in this mess of a kitchen: think a whole lot of improvisation with only sprinkles of strategy.