“It is my pleasure to meet with you in the new Middle East,” said Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad in a speech to the Syrian Journalists’ Union on August 15, 2006.1 But Bashar’s
new Middle East was neither the one hoped for by many since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s
1991 defeat in Kuwait nor expected when Bashar himself ascended the throne in 2000. Actually, it
was not even new at all but rather a reversion, often in remarkable detail, to the Middle East of the
1950s through the 1980s. The Arab world, now accompanied by Iran, was re-embracing an era that
was an unmitigated disaster for itself and extolling ideas and strategies which had repeatedly led it
No Arab state had more to do with this important and tragic turnabout than does Syria,
this development’s main architect and beneficiary. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Arab
states wanted quiet; Iraq needed peace to rebuild itself. Even Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi,
pressed by sanctions and scared by his Iraqi counterpart Saddam’s fate, was on his good behavior.
Only Syria remained as a source of instability and radicalism.
Thus, a small state with a modest economy became the fulcrum on which the Middle
East shifted and which, in turn, shook the globe. Indeed, Bashar’s version of the new Middle East
may well persist for an entire generation. Does this make Bashar a fool or a genius? That cannot be
determined directly. What can be said is that his policy is good for the regime, simultaneously
brilliant and disastrous for Syria, and just plain disastrous for many others.
To understand Syria’s special feature, it is best to heed the all-important insight of a
Lebanese-American scholar, Fouad Ajami: "Syria's main asset, in contrast to Egypt's preeminence
and Saudi wealth, is its capacity for mischief."2
In the final analysis, the aforementioned mischief
was in the service of regime maintenance, the all-encompassing cause and goal of the Syrian
government’s behavior. Demagoguery, not the delivery of material benefits, is the basis of its
Why have those who govern Syria followed such a pattern for more than six decades
under almost a dozen different regimes? The answer: Precisely because the country is a weak one
in many respects. Aside from lacking Egypt’s power and Saudi Arabia’s money, it also falls short
on internal coherence due to its diverse population and minority-dominated regime. In Iraq,
Saddam Hussein used repression, ideology, and foreign adventures to hold together a system
dominated by Sunni Arab Muslims who were only one-fifth of the population. In Syria, even more
intense measures were needed to sustain an Alawite regime that rules based on a community only
half as large proportionately.
To survive, then, the regime needs transcendent slogans and passionate external
conflicts that help make its problems disappear. Arabism and, in more recent years, Islamism, are
its solution. In this light, Syria’s rulers can claim to be not a rather inept, corrupt dictatorship but
the rightful leaders of all Arabs and the champions of all Muslims. Their battle cries are very
effectively used to justify oppression at home and aggression abroad. No other country in the
world throws around the word “imperialism” more in describing foreign adversaries, and yet no
other state on the globe follows a more classical imperialist policy.
In broad terms, this approach is followed by most, if not all, Arab governments, but
Syria offers the purest example of the system. As for the consequences, two basic principles are
useful to keep in mind:2
1. It often seemed as if the worse Syria behaved, the better its regime does. Syrian
leaders do not accept the Western view that moderation, compromise, an open economy, and peace
are always better. When Syria acts radical, up to a point of course, it maximizes its main asset—
causing trouble—which cancels out all its other weaknesses. As a dictatorship, militancy provided
an excuse for tight controls and domestic popularity through its demagoguery.
2. Success for the regime and state means disaster for the people, society, and
economy. The regime prospers by keeping Syrians believing that the battle against America and
Israel, not freedom and prosperity, should be their top priority. External threats are used to justify
internal repression. The state’s control over the economy means lower living standards for most
while simultaneously preserving a rich ruling elite with lots of money to give to its supporters.
Imprisoning or intimidating liberal critics means domestic stability but without human rights.
Nevertheless, the regime survived, its foreign maneuvers worked well much of the
time, and Syrian control over Lebanon was a money-maker as well as a source of regional
influence. But what did all of this avail Syria compared to what an emphasis on peace and
development might have achieved? Thus, this pattern might be called one of brilliantly successful
disasters. The policy works in the sense that the regime survives and the public perceives it as
successful. But objectively the society and economy are damaged, freedom is restricted, and
resources are wasted. Unfortunately, this type of thing is thoroughly typical of Arab politics.
Syria, then, is both a most revealing test case for the failure of change in Middle East
politics and a key actor—though there is plenty of blame to go around—in making things go so
wrong for the Arab world. If Damascus had moved from the radical to the moderate camp during
the 1990s or under Bashar’s guidance, it would have decisively shifted the balance to a
breakthrough toward a more peaceful and progressing Middle East. Syria’s participation in the
Gulf war coalition of 1991, readiness to negotiate with Israel, severe economic and social
stagnation, and strategic vulnerability, all topped off by the coming to power of a new generation
of leadership, provoked expectations that it would undergo dramatic change.
It was a Western, not an Arab, idea that the populace’s desperation at their countries’
difficult plight would make Hafiz al-Assad, Syria’s president between 1971 and his death in
2000—and Saddam, PLO leader Yasir Arafat, and other Arab or Iran’s leaders, too—move toward
concessions and moderation. But the rulers themselves reasoned in the exact opposite way: faced
with pressure to change they became more demanding.
Often, at least up to a point, this strategy worked as the West offered Syria more
concessions in an attempt to encourage reforms, ensure profitable trade, buy peace, and buy off
terrorism. Of course, they were acting in their own interests but what is most important is that
these included solving the issues which had caused conflict, building understanding and
confidence, and proving their good intentions toward the peoples of the Middle East.
Yet to the dictatorial regimes this behavior seemed not the result of generosity or
proffered friendship but rather from Western fear of their power and an imperialist desire to
control the Arabs and Muslims. Frequently, too, it is seen as a tribute to their superior tactics
which fool or outmaneuver their adversaries. This perception encouraged continued intransigence
in hope of reaping still more benefits. Eventually, this process destroyed any possibility of
moderation, though not always Western illusions.