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Bush's Bashing of Bashar al-Assad

Meddling in the Internal Politics of Syria

by SAUL LANDAU And FARRAH HASSEN

How remarkable that a President who doesn’t know exactly where Syria is on the map can influence the direction of its social order! George W. Bush, by invading Iraq and then threatening action against Syria, has apparently contributed to confusion at the highest levels of policy in Damascus.

Last March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had promised that the convening of the 10th Regional Congress of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party (June 6-9, 2005) would coincide with a great "leap for development." Syrian critics of current policies, which have led to economic stagnation, had hoped this "leap" would reenergize the political and economic reform process. But, instead, it appears that the President meant tiny hop ­ at best.

Assad, who studied ophthalmology in England and married a British-born and educated Syrian woman, succeeded his father Hafez, who held the post for nearly 30 years before he died in June 2000. During Bashar’s five years in office, Internet cafés have mushroomed in Damascus and local bloggers send their offerings to cyberspace. From 2000-2001, during the so-called "Damascus Spring," he released 600 political prisoners and allowed political discussion groups to develop. But before Bashar could gain momentum, the old guard that had surrounded his father and built what has become a stale and overgrown bureaucracy, stifled the pace and extent of meaningful reforms.

But some steps were taken. Under Bashar, the once inefficient State Planning Commission has been restructured and now tackles civil society issues. An Agency for Combating Unemployment was created and public sector salaries were raised by 20% in early 2004 to combat poverty. Despite such sporadic efforts, a more consistent and coordinated reform strategy by the Syrian government beckons. One task involves bolstering the work of UN agencies and NGOs in helping Syria fulfill the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, including eradicating poverty, promoting gender equality and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Reformers waited expectantly for the President’s opening speech at the Party Congress, but he offered sparse details and no real plan for triggering comprehensive reforms to meet acute and growing problems.

Syria suffers an estimated 20% unemployment rate and an uninspiring investment climate. Approximately 80% of Syria’s population of 18 million is under 35. Although Assad devoted his speech to the economy, he said nothing that was quotable. Indeed, he repeated the lines he used upon assuming the Presidency that "the economic situation is a priority for us all to improve its performance and improve the life of our citizens" (Al Jazeera, June 6, 2005).

In the political sphere, Assad proved equally tepid. While the Ba’ath Party would preserve its dominant role in Syrian society, he called for other non-religious and non-ethnic based parties (directly challenging the future inclusion of already banned Islamist and Kurdish parties) to share power. His words led the Congress to endorse the formation of independent political parties and amend the 1963 State of Emergency (martial) law. But no real power sharing!

Washington’s aggressive posture in the region seemed to have converted itself into an active brake on change. Over the past two years, the Bush administration unleashed threats, amplified after the Valentine’s Day assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In May, President Bush renewed trade sanctions against Syria imposed one year ago under the Syria Accountability Act (legislation passed without debate by the US Congress in November 2003). The Act asserts that Damascus supports terrorism and undermines the security of Iraq.

The younger Assad’s response to such hostility was to offer Ba’ath Congress delegates a rehash of his father’s pan-Arabism rhetoric — but without details. Bashar advised them enigmatically to disregard "any considerations that aim at pushing us in directions that contradict our national interests or infringe on our stability" (Al Jazeera, June 6, 2005).

His language was defensive and understandably so. Some US media resonated with the line elaborated by the neo cons in Defense and Vice President Cheney’s office: Syria is allowing infiltrators into Iraq while accumulating weapons of mass destruction — and called the Ba’ath Party conference’s final outcome as a "great leap backward."

One rare report, however, called the Bush Administration on its lack of evidence for its "Get Syria" campaign. A US military source leaked an anti-Syria story to the press, implying that the "terrorist leader" Abu Musab al Zarqawi had come to Syria to conspire. Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay stood alone in declaring that "U.S. intelligence has no evidence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq, and experts don’t believe the widely publicized meeting ever happened, according to U.S. officials" (Knight Ridder, June 3, 2005).

Regardless of this reality, the US remains concerned "about Syrian behavior on its own border, about the support for terrorists that appears to be taking place from Syrian territory, about perhaps financial support that is coming from Syrian territory," warned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 20 (Al Jazeera, May 21, 2005). She offered no proof to buttress her statement.

"The Americans are letting off steam on Syria because of their failure in Iraq" one Arab diplomat told Agence France Presse (May 24, 2005). Washington continues pretending that the occupation of Iraq is proceeding apace, and distracts the public from staring at its glaring failures. The daily bombings erode support. More than 1,700 US soldiers have died.

By beating the anti-Syria drum, the mass media have also helped convince the public and Congress to go along with Bush’s less than solid grasp of the facts, just as they validated his bogus declarations about Iraq’s WMDs and links to Al Qaeda ­ which helped build support for invading Iraq.

The new offensive against Syria counts on prestigious newspapers like the Washington Post (June 9), which claims ­ without solid sourcing ­ that Bush officials now have "credible information that Syria has developed a ‘hit list’ targeting senior Lebanese political figures in an attempt to regain control of its neighboring state"

This serious charge, based on information from "credible" Lebanese sources, seems highly unlikely given that the Syrian government, currently seeking to improve US relations, would sanction assassination as state policy (as Israel does, for example. On March 22, 2004, Israeli missiles under orders from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ quadriplegic spiritual leader in Gaza. Israeli missiles also killed newly appointed Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on April 17, 2004).

Syria insists it rejects such policies. "It’s too dangerous for us to give up on the Bush administration. We still want to engage with you," said Dr. Imad Moustapha, Syrian Ambassador to the United States (California State Polytechnic University, June 1). Syria even offered to cooperate with US authorities on jointly patrolling the porous Iraqi-Syria border.

Nonetheless, underlining its deteriorating relations with Syria, the State Department hosted a recent meeting with all the Arab ambassadors in Washington, excluding Ambassador Moustapha, to pressure Damascus to "change its politics" (Imad Makki, al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 7, 2005).

Whether or not George W. Bush and Bashar al-Assad realize, both of their policy scripts share a lack of coherence; indeed, myopia rather than vision best describes them. Bush seems uninterested in finding a way to engage with, rather than threaten, Syria on the hot issues of Iraq, terrorism and WMDS, despite that country’s repeated overtures. Washington’s aggressive stance has apparently sapped Bashar’s leadership energy to carry out effectively the internal reform process.

Flynt Leverett, a former member of Bush’s National Security Council, maintains that by continuing to isolate Syria, both the US and Syria stand to lose from the respective security and domestic perspectives. "The Syrian president is, for U.S. purposes, ‘engageable,’ he argues in his new book, Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire. "Bashar has demonstrated some reformist impulses. He is not an ideological fanatic like Mullah Muhammed Omar or violent thug like Saddam Hussein. Bashar has made it clear that Syria needs to modernize, but he does not have a fully elaborated vision" (p. 158, Brookings Institution Press).

"To engage Bashar successfully, it is not enough to complain about problematic Syrian behaviors," Leverett advised. "Engagement must be backed by a set of policy tools that would impose costs for continued noncompliance with U.S. requirements but also promise significant benefits in the event of cooperation" (p. 159, Brookings Institution Press).

Is anyone listening in the White House? The lingering occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have overextended the US military. The prison abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have worsened an already negative US image in the Arab world and have obstructed Bush’s democracy pitch.

Certainly, the Ba’athists understand that most Syrians and even activist reformers don’t want change dictated by Washington. Ayman Abdel Nour, an admitted reform supporter and editor of the All4Syria.org website aimed at provoking dialogue in Syria on contentious issues, remains optimistic. The Ba’ath party can reform, he contends, "but first we must have reformers" (Christian Science Monitor, June 7).

Bush’s policies have not only stalled reform, but marginalized reformers. How, one must ask, does such a policy coincide with the aggressive push for democratic reform throughout the Middle East? Or, is the old adage applicable: "Consistency is a virtue of small minds."

Saul Landau teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Farrah Hassen was the Associate Producer of the film, "SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE," with Landau. She worked for the United Nations Development Program office in Syria during the Fall 2004 and is one of IPS’ Seymour Melman Fellows for 2005.

She can be reached at: FHuisClos1944@aol.com