America's Assad Quandary

America's Assad Quandary

An excruciating fact confronts us: it does not necessarily follow that Bashar al-Assad’s departure would improve the situation in Syria.

A PRINCIPAL tenet of realism is that disorder is worse than injustice, since injustice merely means the world is imperfect, whereas disorder can mean there is no justice for anyone. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has tested this thesis to an unbearable extent. The degree of injustice he has perpetrated can be equated with crimes against humanity. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in a half-decade-old civil war, both ignited and perpetuated by Assad’s regime—not to mention the millions of refugees and regional chaos his rule has spawned in the Middle East and Europe. But an excruciating fact confronts us: it does not necessarily follow that his departure would improve the situation, at least at this juncture. Syria, to put it mildly, is in great disorder. Assad’s abdication could both deepen and broaden that disorder, if it has any effect at all.

Don’t ever assume that things cannot get worse. Assad remains a secular ruler from a minority group, whose forces and allied criminal bands still control more of the Syrian heartland than any other warlord. These are not altogether negative attributes, given Syria’s level of anarchy and the plethora of Islamic extremist outfits operating in that environment. His departure, rather than leading directly or indirectly to peace, would more likely raise the stakes for those already vying for supremacy. Rebels would not surrender their guns at the sight of his removal—they would have even more cause to keep fighting for each patch of ground. Damascus, in such a circumstance, could quickly descend into another version of the humanitarian hell that is Aleppo, as various rebel groups battle over the frightful carcass of what was once Syria. Fanciful descriptions of Assad ceding command, even as the Alawite power structure survives to provide transitional stability, entirely miss the point: The Alawite state itself may be synonymous with the very person of Assad, who assumed power in 2000 precisely because it was only he who could unite the various factions of the regime built by his father, Hafez al-Assad. Quite possibly, Bashar al-Assad is the state, or what’s left of it. In any case, an outside power demonstrably acting to dislodge him would have to assume moral and political responsibility for the consequences, which might include a variety of dire outcomes: some ethnic cleansing of the Alawites; the slaughter of more Christians; and the eventual establishment of a Sunni jihadist regime in Damascus more hostile than Assad to Israel and Jordan, both U.S. allies.


THE FACT that Russia and Iran are acting, in effect, to prevent such a cascade of events is ironic, but hardly unprecedented. It is an irony that the Israelis can appreciate: The disengagement accords Henry Kissinger negotiated between Israel and the elder Assad regime in the mid-1970s constituted, for all practical purposes, a peace treaty that lasted for over thirty-five years until the present civil war. Who says the Israelis have not found the Assads useful? They may still do.

Moreover, the notion that there is a beneficent negotiated settlement lurking somewhere on the horizon that will lead Assad into exile completely misunderstands the nature of his dictatorship. Assad is complicit in the killing of hundreds of thousands in order to stay in power—not to give it up! He can’t give up. He is trapped. There are likely layers of people around him whose own lives are dependent on him staying in power. Dictators fall when, usually through illness or age, they lose the all-consuming will to remain in control. Both the shah of Iran and Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania were physically failing when they were toppled. They were only shadows of the men that they had been only a few years earlier. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, already in his eighties, was psychologically devastated by the abrupt death of a grandson two years before the Arab Spring, and was never the same afterward, according to those close to him.

Assad, by contrast, is a mere stripling at fifty-one, and he may have a surge of adrenaline having survived so many years after the world assumed he’d be toppled. Russia’s entry into the war can only have improved his morale. His father, who himself had killed tens of thousands of civilians for the sake of remaining in power, would be proud of him, he must now think. This is not a man about to resign from office in an age of the International Criminal Court. Quite the contrary: better to fight on in a rump Alawite state. From his point of view, there would be more honor in such a path.

The truth is that there was probably never a possibility of a soft landing for the sanguinary Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq, which eviscerated all levels of civil society between the ruler at the top and the tribes and extended families at the bottom. Once these Baathist regimes were challenged or toppled there was only dust left in their wake. For their origins lay less in usurpation than in the demonstrated failure of attempts at democracy in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century in Damascus and Baghdad, owing to ethnic, regional and sectarian divides. The idea that democracy has not been tried in Syria is a myth. Elections in 1947, 1949 and 1954 ultimately broke down along the lines of groups and sects specific to parts of the country. By the time Hafez al-Assad came to power in a coup in 1970 there had been twenty-one changes of government in twenty-four years of independence. Nobody could bring order to the state until he arrived.

During the Cold War phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria was known as the throbbing heart of Arabism, since the only way to assuage Syria’s internal divisions was to smother them with an uplifting pan-Arab cause: destroying the Jewish state. Indeed, the most virulently anti-Israel states in the Arab world during that period were those that were never really countries to begin with—not the ones with specific, accessible pasts, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, but states that were but vague geographical expressions. Syria, Iraq and Libya housed identities so weak that they depended on extreme authoritarianism and an outside hatred for sustenance. Syria was always more identifiable as a vast region within the Ottoman Empire (stretching from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Nafud Desert in Saudi Arabia) than as a state in the post-Ottoman sense. It was for these reasons, among others, that I predicted Syria’s eventual demise in a February 1993 essay in the Atlantic. In “Syria: Identity Crisis,” I concluded, “Assad’s passing may herald more chaos than a chaotic region has seen in decades.”

To be sure, Hafez al-Assad was always a brilliant tactician. He tolerated the peace process with Israel—so long as it never led to formal peace—because it allowed him to have a reasonable relationship with the United States, even as the Warsaw Pact supplied him with arms and closely advised him on the techniques of torture and repression. But true peace, he knew, would have led to chaos, since it would have robbed the Baathist state of its only unifying national purpose. As the British traveler and Arabist Freya Stark wrote in 1928, and later published in Letters from Syria, “I haven’t yet come across one spark of national feeling: it is all sects and hatreds and religions.”

By accomplishing the near impossible—stabilizing a place that for all of its previous postcolonial history had never been stable—Hafez al-Assad had afforded Syria the opportunity to forestall Stark’s bleak, deterministic vision. He could have transformed Syrians from subjects to citizens. After all, he was in power for three decades. But opening up the society and the economy, becoming an enlightened authoritarian, in other words, would have entailed risks and the workings of a much broader vision than his narrow, suspicious gaze allowed. And as the machine-like sterility of his rule suggested, rather than become a statesman, he morphed into an Arab Brezhnev who merely staved off the future—which arrived bloodily during his son’s reign.

As the elder Assad’s rule demonstrates, the tragedy of the Arab world was never a lack of democracy, but a lack of enlightened authoritarianism. What was needed was not someone like Václav Havel but more leaders like Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, an absolute dictator who has ruled in the Asian style according to liberal precepts. Syria’s chance for liberal rule now lies in the past, when it had the prerequisite political order to build upon, without which freedom is impossible. It is Bashar al-Assad’s father who is the true father of today’s chaos. This is all Hobbes 101.


OF COURSE, Hafez al-Assad himself was quite restrained, that is, compared to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Whereas the former killed tens of thousands, the latter was a beast altogether who killed hundreds of thousands. And that excludes the Iran-Iraq War. After Saddam invaded Kuwait, Hafez al-Assad reportedly joked that “Saddam is like a chain smoker; the moment he finishes one war he has to start another.”